Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Leonard Mlodinow on probability blindspots

In 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for work that pointed out that human beings often have problems reasoning through real world problems involving probabilities.

Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow has written a fascinating and clearly written new book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, with many beautiful examples illustrating common logical fallacies. You can learn a good deal in a very enjoyable way by reading his book. You might want to start out by watching a talk he gave about his book to Google employees. (See the video above.)

As Mlodinow points out, probability blind spots can cause seriously bad decisions in many domains. Many professionals, including physicians, judges, and investors, make errors in reasoning through situations involving probabilities. (Sadly, it appears that medical schools and law schools don't teach much about probability. Business schools DO teach about probabilities, but it's not clear how much actually sinks in.) I personally think the answer is that students need to grow up thinking hard and deeply about probability. The habits of thinking correctly about probabilistic calculations need to be ingrained deeply in all of us long before we become jurors or adult patients, let alone judges or physicians.

There is a growing consensus about the need for a really sound mathematical education in probability and statistics. Harvey Mudd math professor Art Benjamin makes a good case for it in his TED Talk video below:

Hat tip: Richard Rusczyk

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