statistical illiteracy

An opinion tribune in the Guardian today about the importance of statistical literacy in these COVIdays, entitled “Statistical illiteracy isn’t a niche problem. During a pandemic, it can be fatal“, by Carlo Rovelli (a physics professor on Luminy campus) which, while well-intended, is not particularly helping. For instance, the tribune starts with a story of a cluster of a rare disease happening in a lab along with the warning that [Poisson] clusters also occur with uniform sampling. But.. being knowledgeable about the Poisson process may help in reducing the psychological stress within the lab only if the cluster size is compatible with the prevalence of the disease in the neighbourhood. Obviously, a poor understanding of randomness and statistical tools has not help with the handling of the pandemics by politicians, decision-makers, civil servants and doctors (although I would have added the fundamental misconception about scientific models which led most people to confuse the map with the territory and later cry wolf…)

Rovelli also cites Bruno de Finetti as “the key to understanding probability”, as a representation of one’s beliefs rather than a real thing. While I agree with this Bayesian perspective, I am unsure it will percolate well enough with the Guardian audience. And bring more confidence in the statistical statements made by experts…

It is only when I finished reading the column that I realised it was adapted from a book soon to appear by the author. And felt slightly cheated. [Obviously, I did not read it so this is NOT a book review!]

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