[ Question ]

What would a world of widespread statistical numeracy look like?

by Pontor1 min read18th Nov 20206 comments


World Optimization

I was just reading the thread comparing covid and tobacco, and it made me start wondering about the effect of statistical numeracy in general.

Personally, I have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to these skills (but at least I am aware of this). I do regularly notice the difference in my impression when someone talks about a 3x increase vs a 300% increase, or 1/1000 vs 0.1%, etc.; and I often make a quick conversion in my head when it's convenient. I also know a few mortality stats by heart which I can use to very roughly benchmark certain claims I hear about risk and safety.

Frequently, when I practice this minimal numeracy, it is accompanied by a sense of futility. When the stakes mostly involve policy-making or group action, my own statistical literacy may be inactionable--it may make basically no difference to my life or the world. What matters instead is what sorts of political messages resonate with voters, or what sorts of heuristics will catch on, etc.

So to sharpen my question, suppose you went back in time 20 years, magically caused the whole world to be much more numerate, and then just lived normally for the next 20 years. What about this world, if anything, would be drastically different from our own world?

(For those who want to get serious about the hypothetical: Let's say that in this alternate world, a typical high school graduate in the US has been trained in the habits of mind outlined in the second paragraph. Let's also say that numeracy and literacy track closely--so in any given country, you would be just as surprised to witness base-rate neglect as you would be to witness an inability to read road signs. Feel free to ask for more details or to tweak the hypothetical yourself.)


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Well, obviously Covid wouldn't have happened. People would drive less, take public transit (especially planes) more (alternatively, planes would be massively deregulated and become incredibly cheap to fly). People who feel even a bit sick would wear masks.

I would imagine that this type of numeracy would extend into the personal realm to include things like personal finance and personal productivity. They would cook their own meals more, eat healthier, and possibly buy less luxury goods.

They would push for the end of coal plants (24 deaths per TWh compared to .02/TWh for solar), decreasing the amount of funding the military gets for anti-terrorism activities, and charging the leadership team of Boeing and the FAA for criminal negligence

1TAG16dPeople should take planes because they are safe, and airlines should be deregulated, and deregulation won't affect safety?
1aa.oswald16dI guess the question is "how much of people choosing one mode of transit over another is caused by innumeracy?" Planes are several times less risky than cars, but planes are also highly, highly regulated. If you took those regulations away, let anybody who wants to build and fly a plane, and then completely remove the TSA prechecks, you lower the cost of the planes, lower the non-travel time commitment, and presumably raise the risk of flying. But would it beat a car? Would they reach equilibrium?

More nuclear power. Less hysteria over child sex abuse. More lenient crime policy.

In general, people would worry less about very-unlikely attention-grabbing events, which I expect would lead them to take more risks. 

There are dumb teachers, fat dieticians, and doctors who smoke.

These answer seem to assume that people do dumb thing because they don't know they are dumb.  There is much contradictory evidence to that assumption.

1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:28 PM

For one, maybe the responses to various terrorist attacks might have been different? Any time a terrorist attack happens, I first wonder what the immediate damage was, measured in lives and money. Then I try to see how that stacks up against whatever benchmarks I can think of. If I really want to spend the attention, I might google for more info to help put it into perspective. (I basically endorse these habits--when it comes to sensational news events, perspective is precious and difficult to find.) I dunno, terrorism might be special. Unlike auto fatalities and heart disease, it comes from an enemy that is specifically signalling hostility toward you and trying to make waves in social reality. I think I got this idea when SSC wrote,
“I find it surprising that so many people, including myself, are able to accept the statistics about terrorism so calmly without feeling personally threatened. My guess is that, as per Part VIII here, we don’t primarily identify as Americans, so a threat deliberately framed as wanting to make Americans feel unsafe just bounces off us.”
So put me down for IDK on the effects of terrorism on a highly numerate population.

Surely this wikipedia article would end up looking different? But maybe not. Educated people already fight endlessly over stats like these, so maybe raising the numeracy waterline wouldn’t change much.

Fewer auto injuries/fatalities because people would trade car travel for plane travel? Probably, but I have no idea how big of an effect that would be. When I stop and look for personal anecdata, I can’t actually think of anyone I know who has died in a long-distance car trip.

Maybe wearing helmets in cars would catch on?

Maybe policymaking would host the biggest difference. Presumably, more statistically-informed policies would gain some political currency and be less likely to be defeated by expedient politicians using simplistic rhetoric. Again, I think this effect would be nonzero, but I don’t know if it would be huge. Nonzero, because I think I could find at least a few policies that would have been improved if only the electorate had been able to follow a really simple statistical argument. Not huge, because I think the effects of signalling, rope-pulling, and deal-cutting might each be larger.

Probably people would smoke less tobacco.

...Well, I hope your answers are more interesting than mine!