I was happily shocked to see yesterday’s cover story in Parade Magazine, “What Are We Afraid Of?”
What surprised me was that a mainstream, read-by-millions, middle-of-the-road, USofA kinda magazine was talking Americans out of their panic room mentalities toward a crazy thesis: You’re pretty darn safe.
Well, the article didn’t say that exactly, but nowadays we worry more about highly unlikely things like ebola and terrorism than real dangers (like texting while driving and the flu). People who should know better, like Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey*, think we live in a dangerous time despite the fact that death by tuberculosis, murder, natural disaster, smoking, fire, war, polio–even heart disease and stroke–are becoming less and less likely.
The Parade article breaks down in simple ways how we evolved for threats on the East African savanna–dangers that don’t exist for us anymore–not for our current threats, most of which are self-made (like obesity, being inside moving automobiles, and suicide). But if we don’t use the rational part of our mind, fear can rule us, especially with a media environment that can report every bit of bad (though rare) news in gory detail.
So remember that flu, not ebola, might kill you. Gluten won’t cause you health problems (barring celiac disease), but make sure you get enough fiber. And for heaven’s (and my family’s) sake please get all your shots. No one gets autism from vaccines.
*”I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” from Cato Institute website
…the greater we find our ignorance.” Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first President of the National Geographic Society
This is a popular sentiment. As I looked for similar quotes I stumbled upon this one from JFK: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
Regardless of the truth of the sentiment, this rhetorical form–I’ll call it “The More…The More” statement–is seductive. It sounds so strong, kind of like Leia saying to Grand Moff Tarkin “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” On the face of these statements, I don’t accept that ignorance increases as knowledge does.
But I can accept the statement that more knowledge makes understanding meaning more complex, maybe harder. This is what I think Kennedy and Hubbard were saying, in fairly elegant terms meant for rhetorical impact, not logical soundness.
The utter disappearance of the Air Malaysia jet is tragic. The failed search for it is a big fat metaphor for human limitations in the era of Big Data. It reminds me of The Onion’s “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-berg: Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic.”
This symbolism of human limitations is explored in today’s New York Times article by Pico Iyer, “The Folly of Thinking We Know.” Ayer’s piece is a good meditation on our weaknesses and blind spots. And I always love hearing mention of the Overconfidence Effect, our persistent belief that we think we know more than we really do (and with great confidence, no less).
I’m most interested I hearing your thoughts on this. Does all this information make us smarter yet dumber? Are we more informed but less wise?
Instinct. Guts. Street Smarts. Experience. These are qualities of a great cop, right? But does a belief in heroic crime fighting get in the way of fighting crime?
In an intriguing TED talk, Anne Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey, demonstrates how she used smart statistics to zero in on the real problem crimes and criminals in the Garden State.
Her methods produced remarkable results. Like so many people today who are successfully solving our most intractable challenges, she broke down the problem by asking essential questions and then followed the data to the real bad crimes. It didn’t surprise me that she found that too much time, focus, energy, manpower and money are being spent on low-level drug crimes, and not enough on gangs, violent crime, and crippling corruption.
People seem to dislike this statistical approach because it lacks the street smart gritty glamor of the gumshoe cop on the beat–think Hill Street Blues. But what we think is most important and what is most important are often different, even in the eyes of “experts.” Overconfidence Effect and Illusion of Control are cognitive biases that veteran detectives, successful stockbrokers, doctors–and experienced teachers like me–possess whether they (or we) admit it or not. These biases lead “experts” to believe that all they see is all there is (I paraphrase Daniel Kahneman) and think that their experience and wisdom are right. Big Data, especially now that we have the computing power to crunch it, can help us get a more realistic picture of the real problems of the world. But I hope we are as skeptical of Big Data as we are of experts. Big Data has blind spots, too.