Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts regarding the poor sense of probability

As a homework assigment for my probability class, we were asked to respond with our thoughts concerning the following TED talk.

In the interest of availability, persistence, and my efforts not going to waste (on the off chance someone reads my blog at some point), I've reproduced my responses after the jump with minor edits so they might make sense outside of the discussion amongst classmates.

#1: Assumption of Competence

I singled out the notion of obliviously assuming that a person knows what they're talking about. Perhaps the draw is for the evocative and profoundly unfortunate nature of the case in hand, or maybe it is the pervasiveness of this classic human error; as with most things, it's probably some combination of the two. We all know what is said about hindsight, and in this case it becomes clear that the physician shouldn't have been trusted to handle with adequate deftness a topic decidedly outside of his domain. However, hindsight abandoned, I'm led to ponder in how many future occasions will we and everyone around us continue to make the same error? There is no question in my mind that the false assumption of authority is indeed common and often remains unnoticed. For instance, I'll pick on network news (as it deserves so much picking upon): everyone sufficiently knowledgeable about a scientific field knows that anything communicated to the "lay press" will get blown out of proportion, misconstrued, and eventually presented as something completely different and altogether false. Just the same, news networks actually hire people (generally more attractive than average, trained in the ways of entertainment but otherwise intellectually incompetent--aka actors) to appear and speak as though they have some kind of authority regarding the matter at hand. These are the so-called talking heads, and their inane, unfounded blather is broadcast worldwide to some large quantity of folks who eagerly take it as fact. Perhaps that wouldn't be so bad, presuming that the extraordinarily attractive hosts we call journalists do actually serve with some journalistic capacity... but then that's just the problem, isn't it? Are these people actually journalists? I submit my opinion, fully lacking in any authority, that Rupert Murdoch is well aware of the human tendency of lavishly and sloppily assuming authority, and that he takes full advantage of this. Of course, if you conclude that I have no idea what I'm talking about, I'd happily agree and instead point you to someone who probably does, like Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately his having spent several decades in aim to dismantle the widespread callous distribution of misinformation has had apparently little impact, given the rise of network news over the same period. And perhaps it's not so difficult to come up with a reason why; how do you know Noam Chomsky knows what he's talking about? In other words, is it ever possible to acknowledge authority, or is it always some degree of assumption?
Just one more thing to consider: we've encountered a number of problems so far concerning various tests and their accuracy, even the video brings up such a scenario. Here's the question: given that a test is stated by its manufacturers to be 95% accurate, what reason do you have to believe that their stated accuracy is itself accurate?

#2: The Effect of Presentation

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