Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 29, 2014

in Curious Task, FDA, Hubris and humility, Man of System, Nanny State, Regulation, Risk and Safety, Scientism

… is from page 176 of Richard Dawkins’s splendid 1998 book, Unweaving the Rainbow:

Like all other animals, and even plants, humans can and must behave as intuitive statisticians.  The difference with us is that we can do our calculations twice over.  The first time intuitively, as though we were birds or fish.  And then again explicitly, with pencil and paper or computer.  It is tempting to say that the pencil and paper way gets the right answer, so long as we don’t make some publicly detectable blunder like adding in the date, whereas the intuitive way may yield the wrong answer.  But there strictly is no ‘right’ answer, even in the case of pencil and paper statistics.  There may be a right way to do the sums, to calculate the p-value, but the criterion, or threshold p-value, that we demand before choosing a particular action is still our own decision and it depends upon our aversion to risk.

Too many politicians, pundits, professors, preachers, and bureaucrats (such as those at the FDA) do not grasp this reality.  They insist that, for each of many choice situations, there is a ‘right’ answer for all people (or at least for all people in a particular polity).  Individuality is denied, and the denial is camouflaged as the application of science.

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