Christian televangelist Pat Robertson once polled more than a thousand of his followers on whether they would prefer having evolution or creationism taught in schools. After surveying the results, he came to the dramatic conclusion that most Americans universally preferred a biblical explanation of our origin story. The data was irrefutable. More than 90% of those he surveyed wanted creationism. The sample size was suitably large, and he reached out to the young and old alike. Yet, something’s obviously amiss. What went wrong? It turned out that he had deliberately chosen to survey only a very specific group of people: those who were completely brainwashed by Christianity. Poll the members of ISIS and ask them if they think Islam should be the ruling religion of the world and you will get unanimous approval even if you surveyed 100,000 members.
In order to invest their claims with authority, you will find that cunning advertisers, religious loons and even our closest friends will bend and twist numbers in order to persuade us of many things. In fact, some of these arguments may sound very familiar: 4 in 5 dentists recommend Oral B; this belief is true because so many people believe it; or in the case of gamblers, they would think that if they lost 10 times in a row, they would surely win the next game. Everyone thinks they understand how numbers and probability work. Yet, as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed, even esteemed Math professors and statisticians alike were just as terrible at overcoming statistical bias.
Our minds are not good at measuring impartial outcomes or circumventing statistical bias. Consider that when we run into a friend we have not met for a long time, we are often quick to chalk it up as an incredible coincidence, or even a miracle. We have chosen to remember this one event of meeting him / her but have conveniently neglected the millions of times we saw other unfamiliar faces. It wasn’t really a miracle. Statistically, it was a likely occurrence. Likewise, it’s easy to assume that if you won 8 out of 10 rounds of blackjack, it might be due to your fervent prayer to a deity. But you will find that if you did the measurements over a much larger sample size, say ten thousand rounds, you will find that prayer or no prayer, the results don’t vary much, if at all.
It’s also partly why it’s important to call out prayers, ‘blessed’ amulets or ‘sacred’ words for the bullshit they are. Like cheap horoscopes, deceptive advertisements and ‘reputable’ fortune-telling, these religious ploys and cons prey on weak minds that are already determined to see what they want to see. If the prayer works, God is real and listening. If nothing happens, then apparently God has other plans in mind. By either manipulating numbers or failing to understand their implications, we can be too easily misled by those who claim to have proof, or are trying to convince you to part with your money.
But it doesn’t just end with numbers. As George Orwell once warned, languages can also be as cunning, if not more. The two sentences below express the exact same idea but are phrased differently.
Muslim injures 20 civilians. What do you feel about it?
Muslim terrorist inflicts carnage on 20 unwary civilians. Should you be angry about it?
The phrasing is extremely powerful. In the second example, it unconsciously plants ideas and suggestions in the respondent’s mind and only pushes him / her to give the answer the surveyor wants to hear. The careful manipulation of language is especially true of most national newspapers. Headlines are often written in a way so that one’s beloved country is rarely the conflicting party or the aggressor. Even if the government was inefficient, numbers and words can be phrased in ambiguous ways to hide the hard truth. It’s an effective method of mass control, especially if the intent is to incite or breed patriotism.
Though it is easy to understand the above examples, real world situations are often far more complicated. A pastor for example, may distract you from his many fallacious arguments by speaking louder and more confidently; someone might put you under a great deal of pressure in order to prevent you from thinking clearer; and even businessmen know how to use numbers to falsely generate scarcity or to appeal to your emotional irrationality. It’s inevitable that we will, at one point or the other, be an unsuspecting victim of such deceptions, perhaps even repeatedly. However, what matters is that each mistake continues to fortify our guard so that we can quickly sieve out those who are sincere from those who trade in falsehoods.
So, have you thought about (HYTA) how language and numbers deceive us?