The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

Nuances in What We Say and Mean

I really enjoy language. I listen to a podcast about language, Lexicon Valley, I studied Spanish for my undergraduate degree, and I’m currently learning sign language. There are a lot of ways to say the things that are on our mind, and a lot of nuance in how we say the things we want to communicate.

 

I find this fascinating, but it can cause real challenges for us in our relationships with others. Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships describes communication as “the mortar that holds together whatever structure you decide to build.” It is our communication which establishes and maintains our relationships with others and gives them meaning. The defining characteristics of our relationships can often be understood by the language and words we use. How we say something, the particular meaning we pull from a word, and the vocabulary we use all signify something about the relationships we have with others.

 

Complicating this is the nuance running through our communication. I’m in Reno, Nevada, and the way we speak is heavily influenced by trends in the San Francisco Bay Area. We speak a little bit differently than my fellow Nevadans in Las Vegas, who are more influenced by the language of Los Angeles. In his book, Wright encourages us to remember that there are many differences and nuances in the way we speak and use words. This is important to remember because these small nuances can change the meaning and definitions we attach to what people say and how we understand ourselves relative to others. He writes,

 

“Remember that everyone speaks a different language, and not just the English, Spanish, Japanese sense of the word. The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like ‘relationship’ and ‘love’ and even ‘communication’ will mean something slightly, or vastly, different to each individual who uses them.”

 

For me, this is a reminder that I don’t know everything. I don’t know what is happening in another person’s head and I can never be perfectly sure that we are using the same word or phrase in the same way. We might be using the same word, but have a slightly different sense of what that word means. It is important that we are clear and concise with our speech and that we listen intently and ask clarifying questions when others are speaking so that we can better understand them and be more sure of the meaning we attach to what is said. This can lead to better alignment within a relationship, strengthening its overall ties and bonds.

The Need Behind Requests

Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.

 

This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.

 

We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.

 

First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”

 

When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).

A Father-Daughter Science Connection

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is about her journey with her father through the world of physics and how she crash landed in a career as a science journalist. Early on in the book she describes how she and her father connected through science, with a quick passage that I think many of us can relate to. “As a dogmatically skeptical teenager, I had my own Zen-like practice of zoning out when adults offered me advice, but when it came to my father I listened—maybe because when he spoke it sounded less like an authoritarian command and more like the confession of a secret. It is all an illusion. Now here he was speaking in the same quietly intense tone, leaning in so as not to let the other diners overhear, asking me how I’d define nothing.”

 

Gefter’s quote about her dad really resonates with me. We all want to be included in important discussions and we all want to feel that we are on the inside of a secret. A way to connect with people and spark their interest in science and challenging subjects, is to pose challenging and almost paradoxical questions in a way that encourages wild answers and gives the other person a chance to be part of the secret inside team trying to find the best possible answer. I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and many of the best engage with their audience in this way. They may not be in the same room washing dishes with me or in the car driving down the freeway with me, but they still manage to pose a question which sounds simple, but requires deep and complex thought. Personally I think the public in general needs to be more engaged with science and scientific thinking, but in particular, this is something we need to instill in our children from a young age. Gefter, as an teenage outsider, was inspired by her father’s questions about science in a way that she was not inspired by her actual classes at school.

 

The way we speak with kids and teenagers is important. I do not have kids, but I did coach cross country and track and field as I worked through my undergraduate degree, and I hope to find a way to get back to working with high school students in the future. Gefter’s quote shows us the importance of how we craft messages to teenagers. The content alone is not enough to inspire teenagers and if we have a lesson or a message that we think is crucial for them, we must find a way to brand that message so that it is not an authoritarian command driving them to zone out and ignore us. We must take our important messages and lessons and communicate them in a way that is interesting and in a way that allows teenagers to investigate for themselves and begin to build their own abilities to reason with the world. Gefter’s father was a radiologist, and as a medically trained scientist he had the authority to speak on various science topics, but he did not just throw answers at his daughter like knives shooting through her doubt to tear her faulty reasoning apart, he invited her to offer answers and theories, and then invited her to work through her thoughts with him.

 

Whether we speak with teenagers, toddlers, or grown adults, I think the message holds. Invite curiosity and place your ego in the back seat. Do not challenge your audience with difficult scientific questions just to demonstrate your superior knowledge of a subject, but rather use challenging questions to show the complexity and vast beauty of unknown science. Invite your listener to be part of the secret team trying to think through the challenges of our time.

The Words We Use

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.

My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”

It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.

Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.

Connecting with Technology

It is easy to become wrapped up in the criticisms and shortcoming of technology, especially when criticizing technology also allows us to criticize younger generations and place our age cohort on a shining pedestal, but we should also consider how technology is at times neither good nor bad, but just different. Author Colin Wright provides a unique view into the use of technology for connection and communication in his book, Come Back Frayed.  He writes about the freedom that technology provides him and how it allows him to live a life that previously was not possible.

 

“I can be whomever I want because there’s no one to regulate me, to passively or intentionally box me in, to pressure me into becoming an archetype of myself.
    In real life, the line is not so clear.”

 

His quote comes after he explains the freedom granted to him by technology and his life style. The technology allows him to produce content from anywhere on the planet and to sell his work across the globe. It allows him to get away from typical work schedules, and allows him to have any office anywhere he has decent internet connections. His life is no longer dictated by demands that many people face like mortgages, regular job hours, or a commute. Without a family Wright is also able to explore and live without expectations from others allowing his work to take the shape that he wants wherever on the globe he lives.

 

On its own, the above paragraph is not very insightful. After having read much of Wrights work however, additional possibilities  provided to Wright by technology begin to jump out. He describes himself as a major introvert, preferring time to himself over time with others. Before technology he probably could have managed his time on his own well, but he certainly could not have had the same experiences and freedoms. When we criticize technology for allowing people to communicate and interact without ever truly meeting and knowing each other, we are ultimately just criticizing people for not communicating the way we want them to or expect ourselves to communicate. For those who would struggle without technology, there is a real power in the communicative possibilities provided. Perhaps these individuals would have adjusted and still found success in the pre-internet communication world, but we should recognize the new opportunities it provides to interact in the world and be active and engaged human beings despite shy tendencies.