Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Time To Teach Civic Statistics.
I’ve never been much for bumper-sticker slogans, because answers to anything are not five-words simple. Rule #1: Never say never.
One fine day I found myself locked in Santa Fe traffic behind a bumper sticker as sage as Obi-Wan Kenobi of “Star Wars” fame. The wise sign said: Don’t Believe Everything You Think. …First came a small twinkle. Then meanings came clear as stars at nightfall. A constellation or two took shape. And so this column.
Our expanding society is losing a sense of evidence, of verification. What is evidence? How to judge the quality of evidence? How is evidence verified? How much evidence and verification are enough? When does a thought qualify for belief?
Topics abound to use as examples—what the environment does to the economy, religious prejudice, alternative medicine, nuclear safety and on and on. Most examples are too emotion-filled to keep in sharp focus in public.
A topic that is almost discussible is the federal certification of new drugs. I confine my topic to this. One job of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to certify new drugs to be sure they are safe and effective, a goal that few quarrel with. But there agreement ends.
Assurance of safety and effectiveness requires evidence. Evidence takes money and time to acquire, and more money and time to verify. The greater the assurance wanted, the more money and time are needed. How much assurance is enough is a value judgment.
Time costs the drug companies markets. Time also risks the public safety, either way. If a drug is brought to market too quickly, it may be unsafe. If it is tested more years for safety, the public is unsafe more years from ills the drug may cure.
So people’s feelings start to act as evidence. It is called “anecdotal” evidence: “I hear there is a drug to cure XYZ that is being kept off the market so doctors can make more money.” “I hear that plain old YY cured Lucy’s symptoms.” The word goes out. The FDA is foolish, Congress is foolish, “those” people are foolish, drug companies are greedy, doctors are crooks, the media are in cahoots with whatsis.
None of these feelings (thoughts) can be proved categorically right or wrong by me or anyone else. Besides, that is not the useful point. The point is: What is statistically meaningful? That is, what is sufficiently representative of affairs that it helps explain what is generally going on, and thus helps in sizing up expected outcomes?
Statistics … probability … estimating outcomes vs. one-of-a-kind or a-few-of-a-kind happenings. What is evidence? What is verification? What is most probably true?
My point is not that feelings and values have no part in decisions. They certainly must have a part, and do. Yet feelings and values are not the all in all. Data and statistics are real, too. They too figure into the likelihood of truth, as well as into the limits on stating dead certain outcomes on anyone’s side.
The secret is to balance feelings, values, and relative likelihoods. The last seems now in danger of slipping out of sight altogether.
Statistics and the probability of outcomes is a large, complex discipline. Yet the simple basics loom up in most decisions of society and opinions about them. Still the notion of probability remains alien to most citizens and public issues.
More and more I believe it is time we teach “pitch-penny” statistics and probability. Young kids know about heads and tails. Then go on in high school civics to compute norms and outliers in anthills, and track Zika virus trends. On to “Civic Statistics 101.”
Until then, how do we all make decisions that work the best we can? I believe more use of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s keen advice would take us far. Don’t believe everything you think.
The plain thought points the right way. But then, I may be wrong.