Thursday, September 23, 2010

Misunderstanding risk


Why are people so terrible at understanding risk and probability?

A few months ago, Walgreens had planned to begin stocking a DNA testing kit. You could swab your mouth and send off the sample to find out whether you have any genetic risk for certain diseases.

There's certainly value in finding out your statistical genetic risk for certain diseases. But as my good friend Tyler pointed out to me, not everyone would understand what to do with that information. He thought that while some people would be able to use the kit and take action depending on the outcome, others would completely misinterpret the results, which could theoretically be dangerous.

The problem is that people don't understand the probabilities and calculations that they're dealing with. It's not just uneducated people; everyone makes decisions that, given the statistics, seem completely irrational. The probabilities are complicated and sometimes very counterintuitive.

How do we get to the bottom of that problem? Teach more statistics? Write indecisive blog posts?


jec said...

I'm going to start selling at-home DNA test kits like the ones you describe, except that I'll return the results with margins of error that cover the entire population. Sure, it doesn't tell them anything, but that's fine because I've got their money! Suckers.

Robert Fisher said...

that might just work considering the lack of statistical knowledge that most of us possess.

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