John Naughton interviews Steven Pinker in today’s Observer. This is spot on:
I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reporting of the financial crisis and its aftermath. Inside the information void, rumours, mischief-making, pet-theories and deliberate scare-mongering thrive. And that’s just among the journalists!