Make sound judgements

October 07, 2019 12:00 am | Updated 05:28 am IST

It is important to guard against the tendency to create an illusory gap based on false dichotomies

Illustration and Painting

Illustration and Painting

When asked by The Harvard Gazette , on the one thing he would like to change about our world, psychologist, Steven Pinker, bemoans that many people succumb to the “cognitive bias of assessing the world through anecdotes and images, rather than data and facts.” He makes a strong case for reducing “statistical illiteracy” and hopes that “factfulness”, a term coined by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling, becomes an endemic part of modern culture. Instead of being swayed by startling news reports and pithy tweets, we need to equip people to make informed assessments based on reliable data. At the same time, Pinker asserts that we also need to be aware of the pitfalls of “unaided human intuition.”

Practise factfulness

In their book, Factfulness , the Roslings highlight a set of “thinking tools” that can help you be more discerning of the plethora of ‘facts’, many of them conflicting, that vie for your attention. They also acknowledge that humans have a penchant for drama which leads us to embrace an “overdramatic worldview.” However, we need to fight our sensationalist inklings and learn how to interpret data to reach valid conclusions. We need to cultivate factfulness and make it habitual by practising and persisting.

The Roslings argue that we tend to divide things into binary categories, and often imagine a gaping chasm between the two groups. One of the most pervasive misconceptions that the Roslings have encountered in people’s minds are between ‘rich’/ ‘developed’ versus ‘poor’/ ‘developing’ countries. This binary framework persists even though 75% of humans now live in middle-income countries. When Hans Rosling lectured at the World Bank in 1999, he argued that we need to move beyond ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ labels to include more nuanced distinctions. Apparently, it took the World Bank 17 years and much persuasion before it did away with these labels.

The “gap instinct”, thus creates false dichotomies. To resist falling prey to the “gap instinct,” the Roslings caution us to be more circumspect. When someone provides only averages to support distinctions between two groups, we also need to ask for the range or spread of data, be it income or test scores. Further, we need to beware of comparisons of extremes. Often, the majority of people are in the middle “where the gap is supposed to be.”

Alas, we also have a negativity bias that makes us “notice the bad more than the good.” And, our media plays into this bias so most of us think the world is getting worse, by the day, on multiple counts. Yet, the data shows that we have progressed on most dimensions, over the past two centuries. Whether it is the number of people living in extreme poverty, life expectancy, violent crime or the spread of literacy, humans have made inordinate gains. Of course, this does not imply that all is well with the world.

But we would do ourselves a service by remembering that bad news is more likely to reach us than good tidings. As the Roslings sagely observe, “Gradual improvement is not news.” We also need to be aware of our tendency to see our childhood experiences through rose-tinted lenses. Likewise, “nations often glorify their histories” and we need to be wary of sanitised versions that extol our past.

Another instinct that leads us astray is to imagine “straight lines” connecting points, when in actuality curves “in lots of different shapes” may explain the data better. When we look at a subset of data and see an upward trend, we should remind ourselves that it could “be a part of a straight line, an S-bend, a hump.”

To recap, we must guard against our tendency to create an illusory gap based on false dichotomies, our penchant for bad news and bias towards straight lines when examining data points. Next month, I will unpack a few more unhelpful human instincts that lead us astray.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA.

We need to cultivate factfulness and make it habitual by practising and persisting.

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