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No One Trusts Statistics

2010 January 28
by Richard N. Landers
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This recent Dilbert cartoon provides an important lesson on the use of statistics in business.

“No one trusts statistics” is probably a little too specific.  A more general statement may be more appropriate: “people trust their own instincts over that of experts they don’t know.”  Admittedly, Catbert likely does have ill intentions in this cartoon, but I’m betting most statisticians do not.

Expertise is really a by-product of specialization, a process that helped bring about modern civilization.  Before specialization, in tribal societies, each member of the community would do virtually everything.  Each person would be responsible for hunting food, cooking, cleaning, and so on, as it was needed in the moment.  The first specializations in human society were along gender lines – males tended to take certain jobs and females tended to take others.

As society progressed, specialization became more complex – farmers, blacksmiths, cooks, millers, and so on.  Because specialization allowed a person to devote their entire lives to a particular skill, those people became much better than everyone else in their village or town at that skill.  So, for example, a person whose job is to be a cook will be a much better at cooking than a farmer will.  This is common sense.

A side effect of specialization is that multiple specialists could advance their craft faster than generalists could.  Farming is an excellent example.  In the beginning, it was simply the planting of found seeds and hoping they sprouted.  Over time, the technologies that we all learned about in high school were developed, like crop rotation.  Fast forward to now, when the field of food science is extremely complicated and full of mind-numbingly complex statistics on planting schedules, soil compositions, seasonal variation, and pH levels.

Every field of study undergoes this same specialization and increasing complexity over time.  As it happens, the realities of those fields get further and further away from what the layman can easily understand.  For centuries, this has worked out fine – each person had their own specialization and trusted that other specialists would be similarly skilled.  It was a perfectly natural evolution of human thought over time.  So why don’t people trust it now?  What’s changed?

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  1. February 13, 2010

    I think it has to do with Googling. We can now find information on how to do almost anything.

    Simultaneously, and along with that, the Internet has lowered the barrier of entry to being a so-called expert in many fields and thus, we see a lot of “incompetent experts.”

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