I know a man who was walking in the woods when a tree fell nearby. He now won’t walk in the woods if there’s a wind. I can’t agree with this conclusion. However, I do try to stay inside during a lightning storm. My chances of being hit by lightning are not great, but I would be a potential receptor, and people do get struck by lightning. My practice is based on my understanding of probability and frequency.
It’s human nature to attribute causation to preceding events. I got a new CPAP machine and then I got pneumonia, so the new machine must have caused pneumonia. In actuality, there’s no proof of this, and even if there were a connection, there are many other variables.
My question is, when are people taught about probability, the significance of frequency, the post hoc propter hoc fallacy, and the basic scientific process of considering and eliminating variables when evaluating results of an experiment or event? Is it in public school or only in some college classes? (I used to teach reasoning in freshman English, and I think I first learned about the scientific method in high school science, but then I’m a member of the first wave of baby boomers.) It’s important to identify when and whether reasoning is taught in our country, because our ability to be fair and to discriminate among good and bad news stories and Twitter or Facebook posts depends on our ability to reason.
I have Facebook friends who post singular and terrible incidents of injustice, and news media do this as well. Since the majority of my FB friends are African-American or liberal, the posts I’m talking about usually portray racial injustice. (I have no doubt that if the majority of my FB friends were, say Trump supporters, they would be posting their own, totally different, singular cases of injustice.) The cases posted are, many times, singular occurrences, not representative of a wave of injustice. However, as Sen. Tim Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio have testified, and I also can testify, white police do rather frequently harass young black males, pulling them over and worse. The number of young black males who were not committing crimes or even threatening the police, but who were shot by white police, may be too great to be considered unusual or an aberration. So at some level of frequency, individual injustices add up to a bigger social problem just as the frequency of lightning strikes leads to the admonition to stay in during a thunder and lightning storm.
When we listen to the news or see news on Facebook and Twitter, we really must ask ourselves if each report represents a probable concern, a concern that occurs frequently, a concern that is widespread. To get to the bottom of things or work towards a better future, we must be able to tell the difference between probable, provable causes and red herrings. If we draw premature conclusions and react to every news article or post we read, we will fan the flames of hatred and fear. But we should not close our eyes to social problems. Or go outside when there’s lightning out there.
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.