OPINION22 August 2022

Rory Sutherland: All else being equal

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Behavioural science Impact Opinion Trends

Rory Sutherland explores how it is possible to be confidently and monumentally wrong about statistics, yet for that fact to be invisible to large groups of otherwise educated people – especially yourself.

Abstract room tlled with question marks

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would like your opinion. When asked on a form to state your religion or ethnicity, should you leave the section blank? Or might it be better to lie, or answer ‘other’? Or would it be better to tell the truth? Under perfect conditions, I would, of course, tell the truth. The problem is, perfect conditions never exist.

And here’s my issue. It seems to me an inarguable law that there must be far more semi-competent or indifferent statisticians among the population than there are great statisticians. If we assume a normal distribution of statistical competence, there will be a left-hand tail of people who are shockingly bad at assessing and understanding statistics, a large rump in the middle of people who are quite poor, then an equally large group of people who are confident enough to be dangerous. Tailing off towards the right will be a tiny number of true experts.

I’m ...