Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Do you know probabilities?

I believe that probability theory and some related statistics should be taught in high school. The probability course need not be mandatory. It should simply be understood that people who take it are more likely to win bets, remain uninjured, play tricks on their friends and seem to “get all the luck.” It should also be understood that elementary algebra (most often nominated as the stuff that “no one needs to remember after leaving school”) is a powerful weapon for learning to calculate the odds. People’s general literacy level about probabilities is way below reading or arithmetic comprehension. We’re consequently nudged into dumb actions by claims that have no solid chance of being reasonable. I’ll close with a little story:
Back in the 1950’s when Camel cigarettes’ slogan was “four out of five prefer Camels”, one live TV program closed each week like this: They invited five people out of the audience, asked them to compare their regular brand to a Camel cigarette, and then say which they preferred. Every week, exactly ONE of the five people preferred his own, other brand. Then the sponsor would proudly restate their slogan. What percent of the TV audience was unperturbed by a lack of deviation from the mean?

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