“Keep calm and carry on” was printed on millions of bright red posters in 1939 to help prepare the British public for anticipated air raids in the Second World War. Few ever got posted, but the graphic and dozens of funny innovations on it have become a staple of pop culture in our own time.
It’s still pretty good advice.
Statistician William Briggs tells us to stay calm in the light of the wide exaggeration of badly understood numbers. Holder of a Cornell Ph.D. in statistics, Briggs brings readers through a dizzying set of equations, most of them based on the famous theories of eighteenth-century mathematician Thomas Bayes, to a sober and simple conclusion:
“There is no evidence to suggest that everywhere will be as horrible as Wuhan or Lombardy. There is lots of evidence it will not be as horrible. There is instead evidence that many places will be like Huanggang and Shanghai, and somewhere in between, and that there will be only a few Wuhans and Lombardys. Look all around Wuhan and the rest of China and East Asia for confirmation.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow warns us to avoid making up our minds on the usual basis of the vivid story or the startling TV image. As one clever saying puts it, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’” We should cultivate statistical thinking, Kahneman says to “right-size” our fears. And if we did, we would see things in perspective as Briggs tells us to:
“Some 37,000 people a year die horribly and painfully in motor vehicle accidents. The only way to prevent this is a complete shutdown of the nation’s roads, highways, and byways…. [Moreover,] about 22,000 people this year died wheezing and strapped to machines of the flu. The only way we could have prevented this was a complete shutdown of all social gatherings, all restaurants, all schools, everything. Every time you go outside you are selfishly exposing your neighbors.”
Guess what? Mass media and politicians thrive on crises so we pay more attention to them. We leave aside the normally absorbing elements of our lives—you know, the everyday stuff like jobs, families, hobbies, charities—to click and view and cringe at the latest horrible news. But what is all our anxious watching—and fretful clucking on social media—accomplishing?
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