Empowering our Rationality with Data-Based Thinking

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Steven Pinker’s books—How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and his latest, Rationality—offer a consistent and important message: Smart, critical thinking attends less to anecdotes that tug at the heart than to realities revealed by representative data.

Year after year, 7 in 10 Americans, after reading the news, tell Gallup there has been more crime than in the prior year. In Better Angels, Pinker documents the reality: a long-term crime decline, along with other subsiding forms of violence, including wars and genocide. Enlightenment Now details other ways—from the environment, to life expectancy, to human rights, to literacy, to quality of life—in which, contrary to our news-fed sense of doom, the world actually is getting better.

The same thinking-with-data theme pervades Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. For my money, Chapter 4 (“Probability and Randomness”) alone is worth the book’s price of admission. It’s a chapter I wish I could assign to every AP and college introductory psychology student. Here, according to Pinker are some noteworthy outcomes of our flawed thinking:

  • Statistical illiteracy. Our tendency to judge the likelihood of events by the ease with which examples come to mind—the availability heuristic—leads us to think folks are more often killed by tornados than by 80-times-deadlier asthma; to believe that America’s immigrant population is 28 percent (rather than 12 percent); to guess that 24 percent of Americans are gay (rather than 4.5 percent. And how many unarmed Americans of all races would you guess are killed by police in an average year? Sixty-five, reports Pinker (from reported 2015–2019 FBI data).
  • Unwise public spending. In 2019, after a Cape Cod surfer became Massachusetts’ first shark fatality in more than eight decades, towns equipped their beaches with scary billboard warnings and blood hemorrhage-control kits, and looked into “towers, drones, planes, balloons, sonar, acoustic buoys, and electromagnetic and odorant repellants” . . . while not investing in reducing car accident deaths at a fraction of the cost, with improved signage, barriers, and law enforcement.
  • Mitigating climate change. Compared with deaths caused by mining accidents, lung disease, dam failures, gas explosions, and fouled air, modern nuclear power, despite its vivid few failures, “is the safest form of energy”—and emits no greenhouse gases.
  • Exaggerated fears of terrorists. Although terrorists annually kill fewer people than are killed by lightning, bee stings, or bathtub drowning, we have engaged in massive anti-terrorist spending and launched wars that have killed hundreds of thousands.
  • Amplified dread of school shootings. “Rampage killings in American schools claim around 35 victims a year, compared with about 16,000 routine police-blotter homicides,” Pinker tells us. In response, “schools have implemented billions of dollars of dubious safety measures . . . while traumatizing children with terrifying active-shooter drills.”

“The press is an availability machine,” Pinker observes. “It serves up anecdotes that feed our impression of what’s common in a way that is guaranteed to mislead.” By contrast, unreported good news typically consists “of nothing happening, like a boring country at peace.” And progress—such as 137,000 people escaping extreme poverty each day—creeps up silently, “transforming the world by stealth. . . . There was never a Thursday in October in which it suddenly happened. So one of the greatest developments in human history—a billion and a quarter people escaping squalor [in the last 25 years]—has gone unnoticed.”

This latest offering from one of psychology’s public intellectuals joins kindred-spirited data-based perspectives by Hans Rosling (Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think), Max Roser (ourworldindata.org), and William MacAskill (Doing Good Better), as well as my Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. Together, they help us all to think smarter by advocating reality-based, statistically literate, rational decisions that can help us spend and give more wisely, and sustain a flourishing world.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).