Statistical Innumeracy & Civil Liberty

Cory Doctorow on statistical innumeracy, extremely rare events and civil liberty:

Statisticians speak of something called the Paradox of the False Positive. Here’s how that works: imagine that you’ve got a disease that strikes one in a million people, and a test for the disease that’s 99% accurate. You administer the test to a million people, and it will be positive for around 10,000 of them – because for every hundred people, it will be wrong once (that’s what 99% accurate means). Yet, statistically, we know that there’s [likely to be] only one infected person in the entire sample. That means that your “99% accurate” test is wrong 9,999 times out of 10,000!

And I heartily agree with his suggestion that:

If there’s one thing the government and our educational institutions could do to keep us safer, it’s this: teach us how statistics works. They should drill it into us with the same vigor with which they approached convincing us that property values would rise forever, make it the subject of reality TV shows and infuse every corner of our news and politics with it. Without an adequate grasp of these concepts, no one can ever tell for sure if he or she is safe.


Written by multinormal

June 15, 2008 at 10:50 am

Posted in Science

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