It is a bit of a cliche that bigotry in America is the result of ignorance.  Sadly, this is very true when it comes to the overwhelming incomprehension of statistics on the part of supposedly educated Americans. This is not a segment of society without educational opportunities, this is the middle class. Don't get me wrong, I can barely calculate the median and the mean, much less something as elementary as the mode or standard deviation. I am embarrassed by my level of statistical knowledge, although I certainly know that I am not alone. See, e.g. Statistical Education of Teachers, Chap. 8.  Of course, some statistics are irrelevant, and many statistical studies are clearly badly done. Moreover, any minimal understanding of statistics necessarily includes an understanding of its limits.  This, however, does not vitiate the essential importance of at least a sense of the importance of statistical reasoning.

Even I understand that #SomeStatisticsMatter, whether it be the gross disparity in racial discrimination in the United States, the civilian body count in Iraq, the annual automobile and firearms death toll in the United States, the global prevalence of malaria, the infinitesimal possibly that any one of us will be the victim of a terrorist attack, or that your local Big Box retailer can figure out whether a woman is pregnant before she does.  Unfortunately, even minimal appreciation of statistics takes work, whereas people find concocting intuitive narratives to fit even random facts comes quite naturally. See generally Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.

The gross tidal wave of emotion coupled with a complete ignorance of the mathematical reality of life does as much to explain the misplaced sense of grievance of the white American population as anything. And their choice to be ignorant is deplorable. We all need to do better, but some of us need to do better than others. Doing so is essential to becoming a more just and more knowledgeable society.

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© Charles Williamson Day, Jr., 2016. All rights reserved.

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