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June 28, 2012

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Statistics Police

In addition to empty assertions, there are so many things wrong or misleading in this article I don't even know where to start. To pick just four:

1) Only half of us will live longer than the median, not the average. The distribution of age of death in a population may be such that it's very possible that more than half of us live longer than the average. To illustrate how this is possible, if in a group of 10 people 8 of them have $10 and 2 have $1, those people have, on average, (10x8+1x2)/10 = $8.20 each. In this group, 80% of the people have more money than average.

2) The probability that an unbiased coin falls (say) tails 10,000 times in a row is 1 in 2 to the 10,000th = roughly 1 in 10³⁰¹¹ – that is 1 followed by 3,011 zeroes. To put this number in perspective, the number of atoms in the Universe is estimated to be 3.5 x 10⁷⁹. The time elapsed so far since the Big Bang is 4.34 x 10¹⁷ seconds. So, to say that this event is 'perfectly possible' is a bit of a stretch, to put it very mildly.

3) Comparing risk of one flight versus one year in cars is misleading, and may make you believe planes are thousands of times safer than cars. On a per-mile basis, however, the risk of dying in a car accident is only about four times that of dying in an airplane accident. And since planes travel at at least eight times the speed of cars, on a per-hour basis planes seem to offer us at least double the risk.

4) “Imagine you are listening to a business-plan pitch on an unfamiliar topic. Although you don’t know much about the subject, the speaker’s presentation is fluid and practiced... Your habitual mind says to itself, ‘Well, I may not know much about this, but she is clearly an expert and she is excited … so I guess it must be a good plan.’”

The author seems to imply that this is a good thing – just learn to be confident and show confidence and you will get what you want. It may even be true that it "works", meaning that the pitch makes the VC invest in your plan because they take your confidence as a measure of your expertise. But does that mean your confidence is justified? You can be completely blind to crucial things that ruin the soundness of the idea. As a matter of fact, there is more evidence to support an inverse correlation between confidence and competence. But no need to go far: just look at the confidence most politicians show about themes they know next to nothing about. Unjustified confidence can lure people into bad ideas and harm them all.

Julia

Too vague. Like, what is that suppose to mean? 'In this context we have no choice but to embrace unpredictability with a rational and research-based confidence.' Article doesn't hold water.

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