Science and Belief
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This chapter discusses the relationship between belief and statistical inference. It begins with a brief history of modern statistics, explains some important elementary statistical ideas, and discusses elements of clinical trials. A discussion is given of how the empirical approach used by statisticians and scientists to establish what one believes may be at odds with how most people actually think and behave. This is illustrated by several examples, including how one might go about determining whether dogs are smarter than cats, belief and religious wars, a story from the early fifteenth century about how one might decide how many teeth are in a horse’s mouth, and how a prominent laboratory researcher once threw a temper tantrum in my office. A discussion and several examples are given of cherry-picking, which is the common practice of selecting and reporting a rare event, and how this misrepresents reality. The relationship of this practice to gambling is explained, including examples of how to compute the expected gain of a bet. Illustrations are given of the relationships between these ideas and medical statistics, news reports, and public policy.