Photo: Nicu Buculei on Flickr
German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer pinpointed one of the most pressing issues of our time in an essay for a new book, This Will Make You Smarter, called “Risk literacy.”Literacy was the bellweather for advanced societies in the twentieth century, and now today, he argues, the standard is risk literacy. But even the most advanced economies have a long way to go:
“At the university level, law and medical students are rarely taught statistical thinking, even though they are pursuing professions whose very nature it is to deal with matters of uncertainty. U.S. judges and lawyers have been confused by DNA statistics, their British colleagues have drawn incorrect conclusions about the probability of recurring sudden infant death. Many doctors worldwide misunderstand the likelihood that a patient has cancer after a positive screening test, or can’t critically evaluate new evidence presented in medical journals. Experts without risk-literacy skills are part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Many industries thrive on the fact that people want others to make decisions for them. This is a huge problem; it doesn’t leave any room for human error — when in fact, for example, there are thousands of medical errors annually and the financial collapse boils down to the fact that too many people made bad bets.
“People cling to the belief that others can predict the future and pay fortune-tellers for illusory certainty,” Gigerenzer writes. “Every fall, renowned financial institutions forecast next year’s Dow and dollar exchange rate, even thought their track record is hardly better than chance.”
When people are unwilling to educate themselves and accept responsibility for their mistakes, that leaves a multitude of decisions up to “experts” — who certainly don’t always get it right either.
There’s a psychological term for giving up the power to decide: the self-handicapping phenomenon.
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