Intuitive Plausibility

Numbers are dangerous.

Numbers are our friends.

Hmmm….

Numbers and data are routinely misused or misleadingly used.  Sometimes this sleight of numerical hand is willful, and more often it is born of ignorance.  As the flood of information continues to increase, the importance of being able to sort through that information increases as well.

Most good scientists know that it is not enough to take note of the conclusions of a study.  Rather, it is just as important to  review the background and possible motivations (and conflicts) of the researchers, as well as the specific details of the study itself.  How was the study conducted?  Do you, the reader, agree with the conclusions of its authors?  Is there really a causative relationship?  Or is it just correlation?  The same kinds of questions should be asked for all kinds of information, and not just by thorough scientists.

Here is an article published by Wharton as part of their excellent Knowledge @ Wharton website that discusses some of the problems of numerical and statistical abuse and illiteracy.  The author states that one test of any statistic is whether it passes the smell test.  Does the information make sense?  Is it intuitively plausible?  This imperative to check one’s “gut” resonates with the Cowboy.  Money quote:

“Today, consumers of information are drowning in data,” says Justin Wolfers, Wharton professor of business and public policy. “Terabytes of data are being generated from the constant measurement of businesses, workers, government and other activity, and there are many ways to draw inferences from the raw data. Unfortunately, many of them lead in the wrong direction.”

And later:

For Wolfers, a key to minimizing the misuse of statistics involves intuitive plausibility, or understanding the researcher’s approach and the interplay of forces. “It’s important to know what the drivers are behind the variables,” he says. “Once that is established, an observer can better understand and establish causality.”

The use of intuition can also improve decisions.  While making decisions based on “gut instinct” alone is generally a mistake, one’s intuition is an important tool in the decision-making process.  As Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his popular book of a few years ago, Blink, one’s gut instinct is an assemblage of one’s knowledge, experiences, and personal data collection on a given issue.  Combined with rigorous analysis, an understanding of one’s personal biases and decision-making strengths and weaknesses, intuition can add significantly to the soundness of a decision.

Whether you are reading the newspaper, watching television, ruminating on the latest advances in quantum theory, or just deciding where to have lunch, check for intuitive plausibility.  It might not endear you to your surrealist friends, but it will make you a better consumer of information and improve your decision-making.

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Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 14:27  Comments Off on Intuitive Plausibility  
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