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Thursday, April 5, 2012


People who aren't numerate tend to have opinions, particularly political opinions, which are often off-kilter.

You'd think that politics would have little to do with addition and subtraction and ratios and percentages. But people who have spent time marveling at numerical relationships and interesting statistics tend to have much better senses of proportion, correlation, and causality. 

It tends to be the innumerate types who cry foul whenever someone points out an inconvenient statistic or skewed distribution. It's innumerate types who are blind to patterns. 

The problem is, people who major in political science and journalism tend to be the types who did better on their verbal than on their math SATs. Their specialties are justification and obfuscation and labeling those who would draw conclusions from numbers as evil. 

People who are comfortable with numbers, who actually enjoy delving into statistics, have a much more realistic sense of things. They know which examples are typical, and which are exceptions. They know what to expect, and what not to expect.

They understand odds, and probabilities, and have a better sense of where spending money works and where it doesn't. And they place smarter bets as a result. (It's called common sense.) 

They understand what bell curves represent, and how overwhelming some behavioral correlations are. They have a better sense of how people differ. 

They have a much better sense of cause and effect, and are less susceptible to the kind of brainwashing which demands you ignore hard numbers. Their opinions are grounded in hard reality, not ideology.

More importantly, they can pick out the relevant statistics, and know when they are being manipulated by misleading handpicked statistics. 

Numerate people simply have their feet planted much more firmly on the ground. Innumerate people, less so. 

This is a correlation you'll see time and again -- if you're comfortable with numbers. 


Anonymous said...

Fantastic point. I’d often thought that there was a fundamental difference in thought process that drove people to journalism but never made the connection – which now that you’ve made it seems so obvious.


John Craig said...

Thanks Ed.

Brian Fradet said...

John--This was a particularly powerful article that most people (the masses) don't really get. Denial. Probably one of the most significant statements I've learned in business and life is that "people lie, but numbers don't". I am prone to being coned myself but I've learned to trust in numbers first and foremost. Thanks, Brian

John Craig said...

Thank you Brian.

Dave Moriarty said...

I read a statement somewhere that read like this:

We tend to overvalue things we can measure and undervalue things we can't.

I think it is accurate. we overvalue money ( which is still very important ) and we undervalue our frends and relationships.