December 23

Going Mental

Sunday’s Big Idea

Today's Big Idea: Statistical Thinking

Statistical predictions are based on groups, and the things that might happen to them, and the supposedly hidden connections among those things. As David Berreby points out, statistical efforts are forward-looking. This is what they ask: "What is likely to happen in the future? Or, What would happen in the future if this hypothesis were true? These two modes of thinking about experience are truly incompatible."

Despite this problem, Berreby argues that we "persist in trying to turn statistically-based estimates about future results into narratives." Our brains have evolved this way. "So people who want to make statistical points about people in general will instinctively brighten up their picture with some compelling story—either hypothetical (imagine a 20-year-old schizophrenic being cared for by a demented old father!) or concrete (this guy had a leg amputated due to diabetes!)," Berreby points out.

Narrative, in other words, is intended as an illustration of a statistically-based argument: "In the first, it's "you should have children earlier in life than you imagine"; in the second, it's "you should drink and eat less sugar."

 

  1. 1 Big Idea: Statistics About Groups...
  2. 2 Your Storytelling Brain
  3. 3 The statistical significance scan...
  4. 4 The Brain Is a Statistical Engine
   
  1. Big Idea: Statistics About Groups Tell You Nothing About Individuals

    Big Idea: Statistics About Groups Tell You Nothing About Individuals

    Data-mongering is how Americans try to explain or control someone's actions. And yet, statistics about people in general, or about some category of people, tell you nothing certain about any one individual.

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  2. Your Storytelling Brain

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    The left hemisphere of the brain is always trying to make sense of past thoughts and experiences. Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga ponders our need to hear and tell coherent stories about ourselves.

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