Caleb’s Concepts: Why you should think like a statistician


Caleb Garbuio, Editorial Page Editor

Immanuel Kant wrote, “it can be said all knowledge is based on experience. However, not all knowledge is derived from experience.” Meaning that our experience constructs our worldview, but our perspective is not complete.

Research done by Nobel Prize-winning economist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman demonstrates that intuition is not always correct. In his masterpiece “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Kahneman shows that given certain circumstances, our intuition will fail us. This does not mean intuition is always wrong; rather, it is not a perfect source of knowledge – sorry, Descartes. Therefore, it follows that there must be a source of truth beyond our intuition. This is called a “priori,” which is Latin for “from the previous.” 

Priori reasoning is based on evidence not associated with our experiences. A typical a priori truth stems from a universal concept like logic, mathematics or language, all things that exist outside our world. Think about it: numbers exist regardless of whether we’ve had the pleasure of learning that 2 + 2 = 4. Our experience, or lack thereof, does not negate the universal truth that mathematics holds. Thus, for our purposes, priori reasoning will circumvent our intuitive limitations. 

Intuition is a product of cultural and ecological forces acting upon us and shaping our actions, forming a unique organism with unique experience. Every person is a product of their relationship with forces out of their control. Others’ perception of us is built around separate knowledge from different experiences. The same holds for others we encounter. We can never fully understand their completeness because we lack their experience. Therefore, it is impossible for us as humans to understand the full existence of one another.

Superficial characteristics  affect our decision-making when interacting with other people. Research suggests it takes a few seconds to form an opinion about someone based on our perception of them. However, our minds have limited access to stimuli, meaning we can only process so much information at one time. This alters our perception. Thus, our opinion about others is warped because we filter only bits of information, making it highly probable that our faculties are wrong since we operate on limited information.

This is where statistics come in handy. Regression analysis tells us that our results will be biased if we omit certain variables from a problem. Thus, to get a complete picture, we must account for all relevant variables to avoid statistical bias. However, there is a caveat: we cannot add too many variables because it messes up the variation of the problem, making information equally unreliable.

Our minds operate similarly because we cannot factor in all available environmental cues, nor would we want to. We are, after all, a product of our evolutionary history and have adapted accordingly. However, it is a mistake to assume that because our minds work a certain way, that how they work is correct. This is utter nonsense, as Kahneman demonstrated that the intuitive mind makes blunders from time to time. Rather, we should analyze people in a manner that explores what may not meet the eye. Everyone has struggles and it remains doubtful that you will perceive anything other than what your mind allows us to perceive. Like a novice statistician, you have omitted a variable of a problem. Instead, recognize your initial bias and seek to explore what could influence how you feel in a situation. It isn’t easy and requires practice. But, with practice comes perfection.