Books: Exerpt

March 22, 1989 1 min read

A psychological predisposition toward “filtering"--overemphasizing personal and unusually dramatic experiences, and neglecting ordinary and impersonal events--may reinforce innumeracy, John Allen Paulos explains in the following excerpt:

Which impressions are filtered out and which are permitted to take hold largely determines our personality.

More narrowly construed as the phenomenon whereby vivid and personalized events are remembered and their incidence therefore overestimated, the so-called Jeane Dixon effect often seems to lend support to bogus medical, diet, gambling, psychic, and pseudoscientific claims. Unless one is almost viscerally aware of this psychological tendency toward innumeracy, it is liable to bias our4judgments.

As we’ve noted, a defense against this tendency is to look at bald numbers, to provide some perspective. Remember that rarity in itself leads to publicity, making rare events appear commonplace.

Terrorist kidnappings and cyanide poisonings are given monumental coverage, with profiles of the distraught families, etc., yet the number of deaths due to smoking is roughly the equivalent of three fully loaded jumbo jets crashing each and every day of the year, more than 300,000 Americans annually.

Aids, as tragic as it is, pales in worldwide comparison to the more prosaic malaria, among other diseases. Alcohol abuse, which in this country is the direct cause of 80,000 to 100,000 deaths per year and a contribut8ing factor in an additional 100,000 deaths, is by a variety of measures considerably more costly than drug abuse.

It’s not hard to think of other examples (famines and even genocides scandalously underreported), but it’s necessary to remind ourselves of them periodically to keep our heads above the snow of media avalanches.

If one filters out banal and impersonal events, most of what’s left are astounding aberrations and coincidences, and one’s mind begins to resemble the headlines of supermarket tabloids.

Excerpted from Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos. Published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 1988 by John Allen Paulos. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books: Exerpt