Thinking Statistically

Thinking Statistically

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman personifies two modes of thought as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast. It takes in information, processes it rapidly, and doesn’t always make us cognizant of the information we took in. It reacts to the world around us on an intuitive level, isn’t good at math, but is great at positioning us for catching a football.

 

System 2 is slow. Its is deliberate, calculating, and uses a lot of energy to maintain. Because it requires so much energy, we don’t actually active it very often, not unless we really need to. What is worse, System 2 can only operate on the information (unless we have a lot of time to pause specifically for information intake) that System 1 takes in, meaning, it processes incomplete information.

 

System 1 and System 2 are important to keep in mind when we start to to think statistically, something our minds are not good at. When we think back to the 2016 US Presidential election, we can see how hard statistical thinking is. Clinton was favored to win, but there was a statistical chance that Trump would win, as happened. The chance was small, but that didn’t mean the models were all wrong when he did win, it just means that the most likely event forecasted didn’t materialize. We had trouble thinking statistically about win percentages going into the election, and had trouble understanding an unlikely outcome after it happened.

 

“Why is it so difficult for us to think statistically?” Kahneman asks in his book, “We easily think associatively, wee think metaphorically, we think causally, but statistics requires thinking about many things at once, which is something that System 1 is not designed to do.”

 

System 1 operates quickly and cheaply. It takes less energy and effort to run on System 1, but because it is subject to bias and because it makes judgments on incomplete information, it is not reliable for important decisions and calculations based on nuance. We have to engage System 2 to be great at thinking statistically, but statistical thinking still trips up System 2 because it is hard to think about multiple competing outcomes at the same time and weight them appropriately. In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer shows that statistical thinking can be substantially improved and that we really can think statistically, but that we need some help from visual aids and tools so that our minds can grasp statistical concepts better. We have to help System 1 so that it can set up System 2 for success if we want to be good at thinking statistically.

 

From the framework that Kahneman lays out, a quick reacting System 1 running on power save mode with limited informational processing power and System 2 operating on incomplete information aggregated by System 1, statistical thinking is nearly impossible. System 1 can’t bring in enough information for System 2 to analyze appropriately. As a result, we fall back on biases or maybe substitute an easier question over the challenging statistical question. Gigerenzer argues that we can think statistically, but that we need the appropriate framing and cues for System 1, so that System 2 can understand the number crunching and leg work that is needed. In the end, statistical thinking doesn’t happen quickly, and requires an ability to hold competing and conflicting information in the mind at the same time, making it hard for us to think statistically rather than anecdotally or metaphorically.
Humans are Not Automobiles

Metaphors and Similes of the Human Body

Human beings think in metaphors and similes, especially when it comes to thinking about ourselves. We come to understand one thing by comparing it to another, and we describe something as being like something else, to help us understand how we should relate to it. A metaphorical way of thinking that Sam Quinones is critical of in his book Dreamland is the description of the human body as an automobile, or more generally as a machine.

 

We think of ourselves as if we were the most advanced technologies we have developed. We imagine that we could have parts swapped, that we just need little tune-ups here and there, that all we need is a mechanic to tinker with a few things and we will be back to running smoothly if we are ever out of whack. However, this metaphor, like all metaphors, is an incomplete way to understand the reality of what we are.

 

Our minds are only so good at holding lots of complex information. We use metaphor and simile to simplify our thought process. Metaphors and similes serve as heuristics to understand and conceptualize complex structures and relationships, but they don’t actually capture the full scope of reality. To say that the human body is an automobile, or operates as an automobile, misses key aspects of human dynamism, plasticity, adaptability, and function. We respond to the world and our environments, change and adapt to new settings and structures, and move in ways that no machine that we can create today can. We share some things in common with machines, but we are not machines.

 

In Dreamland, Quinones quotes a physician at the University of Washington Center for Pain Relief named John Loeser who explains why this type of thinking is dangerous, “Usually the patient says, ‘I come to you, the doctor. Fix me.’ They treat themselves like an automobile. People become believers in the philosophy that all I need is to go to my doctor and my doctor will tell me what the problem is. That attitude has been fostered by the medical community and Big Pharma. The population wants to be fixed overnight. This is the issue we addressed with chronic pain patients. They have to learn it’s their body, their pain, their health. The work is done by them.”

 

The automobile metaphor manifests falls apart when we project a quick scientific and technical fix for ourselves. The idea that all we need is a special additive to make our body work better is what fuels our desire to have a pill to solve all our medical problems, and it is emboldened by the idea that we are basically automobiles.

 

We always compare ourselves, our brains, and our bodies to the highest technology of the time. If we don’t consider ourselves automobiles anymore, we probably think of ourselves as technical space ships or precision fighter jets. Humans once thought of the brain as a complex system of pulleys and levers, and now we think of our brains as supercomputers.

 

What Quinones uses the quote from Loeser to show is that we are living systems. We are not machines that can be isolated from our environment, tinkered with, and tuned for optimal performance. We have to be responsible for how we live and the systems, structures, societies, and institutions that we all build and live within. If we don’t truly think of ourselves as more dynamic than machines, and if we don’t consider our interconnectedness, we will never understand ourselves properly, and we will never fix the problems we face, like chronic pain. We will turn to cheap tricks and remedies, and we will face the consequences of living in a way that praises quick fixes and pills to try to solve our problems.