The ignorance of Congress simply mirrors our own ignorance

NewImageby o palsson

Willfull Ignorance about Statistics in Government
[Via Good Math, Bad Math]

Quick but important one here.

I’ve repeatedly ranted here about ignorant twits. Ignorance is a plague on society, and it’s at its worst when it’s willful ignorance – that is, when you have a person who knows nothing about a subject, and who refuses to be bothered with something as trivial and useless about learning about it before they open their stupid mouths.

We’ve got an amazing, truly amazing, example of this in the US congress right now.
There’s a “debate” going on about something called the American Community Survey, or the
ACS for short. The ACS is a regular survey performed by the Census administration, which
measures a wide range of statistics related to economics.

A group of Republicans are trying to eliminate the ACS. Why? well, let’s put that question aside. And let’s also leave aside, for the moment, whether the survey is important or not. You can, honestly, put together an argument that the ACS isn’t worth doing, that it doesn’t measure the right things, that the value of the information gathered doesn’t measure up to the cost, that it’s intrusive, that it violates the privacy of the survey targets. But let’s not even bother with any of that.

Members of congress are arguing that the survey should be eliminated, and they’re claiming that the reason why is because the survey is unscientific. According to Daniel Webster, a representative from the state of Florida:

We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective, especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.

Note well the emphasized point there. That’s the important bit.


No concept of statistics nor of science. As the post states:

Scientific sampling is always random.

So Mr. Webster’s statement could be rephrased more correctly as the following contradiction: “This is not a scientific survey, because this is a scientific survey”. But Mr. Webster doesn’t know that what he said is a stupid contradiction. Because he doesn’t care.

There can be points about cost although I think $70 is quite cost effective for the amount of information gained.

But the method of the survey is nothing to argue about. Statistics demonstrate that a random and scientific go together.

As this post discusses, most people do no make decisions based on rational thought. They use all sorts of easy rules of thumb – one being what others in their group think.

If you are a Republican, you follow what other Republicans state, especially the leaders.

President Obama comes out for gay marriage and the numbers of African-Americans who feel similar skyrockets.

Intuition and other non-rational approaches can work well but may break down in complex sittings.

People use System 1 to make quick decisions while they use System 2 to examine and reason.

System 2 is the one who believes that it’s making the decisions. But in reality, most of the time, System 1 is acting on its own, without your being aware of it. It’s System 1 that decides whether you like a person, which thoughts or associations come to mind, and what you feel about something. All of this happens automatically. You can’t help it, and yet you often base your decisions on it.

System 1 is always on. System 2 is hardly used because it requires effort and energy.

Most times System 1 works fine. Just as saying today’s weather will be just like yesterday’s.

But sometimes that hurricane comes along and all bets are off for System 1.

One of the hallmarks of willful ignorance is the purposeful effort to refuse to use System 2 approaches. Rational thought is not as important as simply going with the gut feelings.

System 1 allows Cargo Cult Worlds to be created and sustained.

Too many people simply refuse to allow System 2 approaches to enter into their thinking. And it gets worse the more complex the thinking needed, when System 2 thinking is most needed.

Will we ever have a period where System 2 thinking is used by our leaders in a meaningful and effective way?

If we hope to survive, there need to be some really good System 2 thinking applied. Rules of thumb too often lead to useless but willful ignorance.