On “Plausibility” and Reputability

Earlier today I linked someone this article (elsewhere on the internet) about irrational fears of radiation. Specifically, I was mentioning a statistic:

Studies of more than 80,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts have found that … only about 500 [cancer] cases could be attributed to the radiation exposure the people experienced.

Now, when you use statistics to argue against people who are entirely unprepared for them, more often than not you will get a flustered response… like this:

This article is coming from a blogger who also said that child labor laws are hypocritical bc in America we have little girls selling girl scout cookies (hard labor!) nd kids doing school work. Just sayin… Where u get facts from is important…! There are a lot of official reports out there with facts that sound a little more plausible abt this topic!

You can’t make this stuff up. This is the sort of comment that almost defies response. To begin with, the first sentence is a textbook red herring. The statistic in the article is linked to a Washington Post article, so even if you have a beef with Hanson, it doesn’t matter. I’ll forego commenting on Robin’s child labor article (and it’s sequel), because they’re irrelevant to this conversation. (Kudos to Hanson, though, for writing an article that so gravely offended this commenter – if you’re not offending someone, then you probably haven’t said anything of consequence.)

My biggest beef is really with the “plausible” line. If you look for statistics that tell you what you are already convinced of, their scientific utility is null. Journalists want to publish articles that people want to read and believe, and consequently you run into this enormous positive-response feedback mechanism (see: anthropogenic global warming.) When people encounter counter-intuitive statistics, their initial reaction (usually) is to decry your sources as fraudulent, rather than to examine why it is that a particular scientific finding is in conflict with their beliefs. There’s a lot of bad science out there, and there’s plenty of good science, too, so to dismiss any scientific finding on the basis of its violation of your sensibilities is irrational. But, of course, it’s easier to attack people than it is to attack science or logic. It’s easier to talk about how you “feel” that something is incorrect, rather than to prove, at least inductively, that it isn’t so.

Needless to say, I give people an earful when is see this sort of my behavior. It drives me bananas.

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One thought on “On “Plausibility” and Reputability

  1. Mindles H. Dreck says:

    Understood and agreed. There’s nothing more difficult than arguing with someone’s feelings. Important to acknowledge them in response, without sounding patronizing.

    Just make sure you aren’t delivering earfuls too aggressively to someone you care about. Bananas, forcefully delivered, can burst eardrums.

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