People frequently use outlying data points to prove something true- the, “If he’d been wearing his seat-belt in that crash he would have died!” sort of thing. Sometimes I call folks out on this, other times not. If you tell me not wearing seat-belts is prudent because your father survived a horrendous car crash solely because he wasn’t wearing a seat-belt I’ll know that you are doing something we all do at times, using emotion rather than reason to decide what makes sense. Statistics prove the efficacy of seat-belts in providing protection in case of car crash, the survival of Daddy notwithstanding.
Emotions are important, they’re critical, but they can’t replace Critical Thinking. Data. Give me data. Lots of data. Longitudinal data. Stories, anecdotes and parables are fun and illustrative because outlying events do happen, but both personal decisions and public policy should be based on data, not some one in a million occurrence that shows remote possibility rather than likely probability.
People tend to use outlying events, anomalies, to “prove” their position, events like the centenarian pictured above who, despite a lifetime of smoking, is seen happily puffing away as she celebrates her one-hundredth birthday. The fact that she is particularly newsworthy because she runs counter to what we all know, that smoking decreases lifespan and increase morbidity- just plain old being sick -is ignored by some as they rush to “prove” that smoking is innocuous. No, it’s not. It’s a killer. This gal just has genes that allow her to do what most of us cannot.
That same logic is also used in reverse. Emotion over reason folks will find the octogenarian who is more fit than the average twenty-year-old, the individual who rose from the slums to become a world class leader or the person who beat pancreatic cancer and say, “See! They did it! You can too!”
“Can”? Yes. Will? Highly unlikely.
I’m not a defeatist, I’m not a, “Why bother?” Eeyore of an ass who thinks we’re doomed to failure, but as a believer in fact, in longitudinal, large population studies, I prefer to see the world as we know it is rather than how we’d like it to be. Hey, the world’s a dynamic little sphere and things can change, they can improve, but the first step is to stop lying to ourselves, stop selling our position that has little if any basis in observed fact, and attack a problem based on what we can demonstrate is true, not on what we wish is.
“Perception is reality,” is exactly what is wrong with emotional reasoning. Critical thinking is no guarantor of success but believing in the tooth fairy, the anomalous as illustrative of high likelihood, has been shown as contraindicated if the goal is taking actions that lead to a desired outcome.