Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Pretty numbers

While catching up on my John Stossel articles, I came across this especially interesting one about how the media likes to scare the public about potential catastrophic events when there's a miniscule likelihood of these events happening. The article talks about an experiment that 20/20 ran to see how much people actually paid attention to likelihoods:

Media exposure clouds our judgment about real-life odds. Of course, it doesn't help that viewers are as ignorant about probability as reporters are.

To demonstrate that, "20/20" ran an experiment. We asked people to put on blindfolds and then to pick up a red jellybean from one of two plates that held a mixture of red and white jellybeans.

We offered $1 to anyone who could pick up a red bean.
Here's the catch: While one plate held 20 jellybeans and the other 100, the plate with 20 beans had a higher percentage of red ones. We put up signs that told people this clearly: "10 percent red" of the small plate and just "7 percent red" of the big plate.
Surprisingly, even with the percentage signs in front of them, a third of the people picked the plate with 100 beans.

What people saw overwhelmed their ability to think abstractly about probability. They saw more red on the big plate. It's one reason people obsess about things that have a small chance of hurting them but ignore real threats.


Things like this really grind my gears. These people were given hard cold facts about what the end result was likely to be, yet they chose to ignore it.