(Originally posted here.)
I've always liked statistics as a science but never thought it hawt
and sexy. Now I wish we could make statistics more sexy (bare more
skin?) in order to save more of us from falling into those hidden wolf
traps of the net. They don't have sharpened sticks, those traps (holes
in the ground, covered by branches), but they do hurt our understanding
in somewhat similar ways.
An example of the wolf trap:
Someone writes on, say, racism or sexism in recent events and then gets
attacked by trolls. Suppose that in one scenario there are five very
active trolls hammering at the poor writer, in an alternative scenario
there are five thousand such trolls.
The two scenarios
are not the same, they don't tell us the same story about the likely
number of people "out there" believing whatever those trolls believe.
That's why it's very wrong to argue that the presence of five Twitter
trolls in one's mentions means that the troll-opinion is extremely
common in the real world. Yet in the last week I've seen several people
take that view of events: The mere existence of any nasty trolls (and
nasty they are) means that those trolls have sizable backing in the
world of opinions, ideas and values.
So that is about proportions or percentages. There will always be people with extreme nasty values, there will always
be some who troll. To unearth a troll comment and then to write about
it as if it represents a sizable number of people in the real world is
lazy and just wrong. Even utopia would have a few trolls, hankering for
life in hell.
It matters whether 0.1 percent or 60% of
Americans believe that broccoli should be banned. Those who don't get
that difference are going to create "the-sky-is-falling" stories, and
they are not ultimately helpful.
Add to all that the
problem of self-selection, which means that those who comment on any
particular incendiary topic are much more likely to be the ones who hold
the extreme opposite view of the one any particular writer has used in a
piece (broccoli haters, whether 0.1% or 60%, will be much more likely
to be in the comments section of your Broccoli Is King article than
That's why the comments sections,
especially if not moderated, are dominated by angry voices and often
opinions better suited to critters who just crawled out of the primeval
slime*. You know, the way any article about gender inequality that
focuses on women gets comments from angry meninists.
who agree with the writer tend not to waste time scribbling that down
under the article, and people who aren't that bothered either way tend
not to spend time in the comments, either. The Twitter discussions work
on somewhat similar principles, though the fact that people have
followers makes them less hostile to the imagined writer here. But
those who hated what you wrote are the ones with real energy to look up
your handle and then enter the "discussion."
problems I've described above are a) ignoring the actual prevalence of
various beliefs and b) ignoring self-selection on the net. That
double-ignorance can have bad consequences: We may be misled into
believing that a molehill is a mountain, we may initiate much larger
angry fights with an imaginary enemy (windmills?) and we may
misunderstand the scope of the problem altogether.
A similar problem is born when someone writes an article starting with the planned plot.
Suppose that the plot is how much people hate broccoli. The intrepid
journalist will then go out and interview people. What if the vast
majority of those interviewed aren't bothered about broccoli at all?
That statement will not have a prominent place in the planned story.
Instead, even if it takes a very long time, the journalist will find a
few people who reallyreally hate that green tree-pretender among the
vegetables, and it is the opinions of those few people that we all will
The next stage (and believe me I've seen
this stage recently, though not about broccoli hating) is for people to
talk about the vast camp of broccoli haters and mention the opinions of
the interviewed few as representative of what that vast camp thinks.
This doesn't mean that anecdotes
cannot reflect majority views or the views of an important numerical
minority. But strictly speaking an anecdote, if true, tells us only
that one particular person held a particular opinion. It doesn't tell
us how common that opinion is. For that we need the collection and
analysis of statistical data about the whole relevant population (all
vegetable eaters in the case of broccoli).
So all this was what has stopped me from writing on various interesting topics yesterday. Aren't you glad I shared?
*With all due apologies to critters from the primeval slime who are probably charming and empathic ones.