Did you ever wonder why many of the stories we listen to or watch on the news are astonishing, while scientific findings seem often obvious and even boring to us?
And also, have you noticed how appealing and glamorous scientific discoveries are until we read their true numbers in the research papers?
I am almost certain you did wonder, and you did notice. And probably you even know the answer.
We, humans, are built to love the sensational, the stories we are fed must be compelling for us to remember the facts. The facts alone may not be that memorable.
The problem with it is that we most likely stick to the stories. We may have a doubt on these, and even dismiss them as trivial, but only a few of us make our own research. This process is sometimes tedious, even for people burning out of curiosity. The purpose of news is to be a medium to inform of facts. To do that, they must first catch our attention. We must focus on them in order to be fed.
Some of these stories get our interest. They are tailored to entertain us so that our attention does not vanish after seconds. We are interested when the story (and the information beneath its plot) somehow affect us. Fluctuations in the price of fuels, food, and services have a consequence on our spending and household balance. A war in a near country influences our emotions, providing us anxiety, sadness, and anger. The departure of a superstar makes noise around us, even if we weren’t a fan.
These stories are different, yet all of them attract us. In fact, they may attract us more than we believe. Even when we aren’t interested, we are prone to give an opinion on the matter. They also have something else in common: the way they are presented is usually simple and concise, easier to understand.
But I have a problem with that, and you should do too: the plot of these stories overpowers the facts they are based upon. It gets worse when the facts are altered for the sake of the story. It is not just a matter of business strategy: our brains are hardwired to be bad at statistics, we are biased and opinionated and therefore we miss true facts even when they are in front of us.
So, I bothered to collect some considerations that can help you eviscerate data from stories, and facts from garbage. While they cannot perfect our thinking, these eight points are very helpful to inquire about the validity of the information we are fed with, and thus think more clearly.
1/8 – What the Experts says
Renowned experts are usually called out by the media to share their opinion about ongoing events and to make predictions. We care more when their prediction fails the real events, for it discredits their expertise. In the eyes of many, the expert becomes a charlatan.
What we do not consider is that, although experts know way more than the average person, they cannot know everything. Because they are called on to give answers to the public, they try to provide something which may happen. In our minds, they must know when nobody else does with bullseye accuracy. That is why they are experts, right?
There is no right answer to that. It also largely depends on the topic and on the length of prediction. It is easier to express short-term predictions of a range of possibilities than long-term forecasts with limited answers. To the consumer, the former options are boring and seem not to say much, because they do not provide certainty.
That’s all we are looking for – to be comforted by someone who is getting rid of our doubts. So, if an expert shoots far and the prediction realizes, our mind validates them. Conversely, the non-linear possibility that expertise may fail is unacceptable to us on the spot. What you can do is remember that is humans we are talking about, and we are all fallacious.
2/8 – A perspective on percentiles
When somebody is trying to convince you of something, inflated numbers are one of their weapons. And nothing is better than percentiles. They put you in the perspective of how big a piece of cake is owned by a part.
Like, when 9 people out of 10 choose a product X, because Y. Also summarized as 90%. What these articles do not say is where this number comes from. We are more prone to think that it must be a big number. We do not consider, however, that such “finding” is usually relational: it does depend on a sample, which is a small segment of people from an entire population.
The 90% of consumers using a specific product for one year could as well be the 2% of overall consumers of a product line. Now, what’s the number that strikes more for the sales?
The same goes for scientific research. An event that happens among 10 people is more sensational when compared to the same happening among thousands. It is hard to perform large scale studies, but this does not explain why the same is not replicated to add more data.
It is easier to be convinced of something when numbers are small, even if we know that it would be more consistent to test on a greater scale. We are aware of such inconsistency in the back of our minds, and somehow, we decide to believe it anyways.
I found that knowing about descriptive statistics isn’t just good for research. It provides you with a great tool for critical thinking, as it helps to put things into bigger perspectives, especially when you work with predictions.
A month ago, I was debating on LinkedIn about a research method on non-verbal analysis. According to the author of the post, such a method must be based on data collected from sixty individuals in order to be formally up to standards. Would that be enough?