Hope and Hysteria

Be afraid…very afraid. Everything you eat is poison. Everything you breathe is toxic. Vaccine causes autism. Every child will be abducted if you leave them for even a moment. Everything you hear is a lie and everything you see is an illusion.

Whew. Makes a person want to just stay in bed, though that is probably hazardous as well. How did we go from being a nation of adventurers and risk-takers to a herd of nervous cattle?

First, we let ourselves be swayed by the popular press into believing that things are getting worse. Bad sells. Good is boring. Take storms.

“There has been no trend in the number or intensity of storms at landfall since 1900,” says Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “The storms themselves haven’t changed.” Time.com

Yet every time a leaf blows to the ground prematurely, the Internet and TV light up with story after story, photo after photo, of flood, fire, famine, and doom. Each day brings a new calamity to be milked for all the publicity it’s worth. And each time we fall for the gimmick, we become more and more susceptible to being manipulated by those who would “save” us from the ravages of a hostile world. How do you fight something like that?

Here’s a start: We can learn why the world looks scarier than it really is. A lot has to do with statistics. Statistics are almost universally held in contempt by people who have never learned statistics or worked with real data. We hear things like: “You can prove anything you want with statistics.” (Trust me, you can’t, but bear with me.) Well-supported research is a rarity because it is notoriously difficult to establish any hypothesis, much less lots of them having to do with everything from laundry detergent to lollipops. Lay skepticism is not far from the mark.

In a time when statistical calculations were labor-intensive and time-consuming, researchers were considerably more humble. Data sets were relatively small and required careful choices about which variables to include. Now, even desktop computers can run analysis after analysis in seconds using dozens or even hundreds of variables on huge data sets.

The price we pay for Big Data is the risk of Big Errors, as explained wonderfully in this article by Nassim Taleb. You see, statistics work on the basis of figuring out how likely it is that we are wrong. If we observe two events that seem to be related, it is natural to ask whether they are related by cause or by chance. For example, the two young men in this video try to figure out whether tapping a beer can keeps it from spewing when opened.

Small samples lead to faulty conclusions. If we tap, say, two or three beer cans before opening them and they all are spew-less, we might conclude casually that tapping eliminates spewing. Statistics brings more rigor to our conclusion by telling us how likely it is that we would have observed the same thing just by chance. In the case of this sample of three, the chances are very good that this is just what happened. The sample is too small to provide good evidence.

There is another problem with statistics that often goes undetected in the popular press. Imagine we want to know if jellybeans cause acne. A statistical test of such a hypothesis for jellybeans in general would come back unsupported. Jellybeans come in different colors, though, so the young lady in the cartoon below suggests that we analyze the data from each color separately. Let’s say there are 20 different colors.

Jelly Bean Science

Now, is this a lie? Well, yes. Those interested in the detailed math can find it in most any introductory book on statistics, but for 20 samples, it works out that we will probably see a “significant” correlation in at least one of those colors just by chance. It is true that there was a link. The problem is that it was reported out of context and that the context made all the difference. A semi-responsible journalist might bury deep in the article some mention of the whole experiment. A conniving or lazy one would not even do that.

Most of us are not worried about jellybeans and acne, but we are worried about what causes autism, whether our drinking water is safe, and how likely we are to have our children whisked away by a stranger. We would like to know the truth. The popular press, on the other hand, is not so much motivated by the whole truth as it is half-truths that sell news.

Ignorance is far more dangerous than any of the misfortunes we see in the news. Vaccines, responsible for saving millions of lives, are under attack. Safe public drinking water, an accomplishment thousands of years in the making, is being represented as a dire threat to our health because of the chemicals in it. The odds of having a child abducted are near zero, yet we are all but told to never let our children out of our sight for any reason. We have untethered ourselves from reason and lashed ourselves fast to the hitching-post of hysteria.

Panicked people do dumb things. Ironically, though, dumb things are what cause panic in the first place. Storms are no worse than they ever were, but the number of people living in areas that take the brunt of bad weather has increased dramatically. Why? One reason is that nice places to live, like the coast–are only nice when the weather is good, a fact lost upon someone enjoying a balmy breeze on a fall day.

Another is that government pays us to be stupid. By subsidizing insurers in areas that get hit by floods and hurricanes, individuals need not pay the additional real cost of choosing to live in a flood zone or storm alley. Even when the government doesn’t pay us to be stupid, we seem to find a way, as evidenced by the alleged link between vaccines and autism.

I want to know why my son has autism as much as anyone, but I also don’t want to blame a medical procedure that saves countless lives. The truth is, we just don’t know why he’s autistic. No one else does, either. A few decades ago, it was blamed on having a “cold” mother who showed little affection. Imagine how many lives were wrecked on the basis of that foolishness. We know better than to blame the mother now, but we apparently have not learned the real lesson, which is to withhold judgment until we have good evidence.

Every time we shirk our responsibility to be thinking adults, we edge closer to letting someone do all our thinking for us. They won’t stop at thinking for us, though. Saviors will continue to come pouring from the woodwork, telling us that if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels, we will bake like a ham, that if we don’t let the EPA rule over every mud puddle, we’ll kill the planet. Go in the house, shut the door, and don’t ask any questions–we’ll take care of everything.

There is hope, but it is dwindling by the day. It is impossible to tame and master a people who rely on reason as their primary guide in life. They are inoculated against the seductive claims of leaders who promise relief from reality and hucksters who sell snake oil to the unsuspecting. It is easy to enslave the intellectually lazy and the wantonly gullible. Let us hope we remember how to be the former.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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