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Ask Professor Rosenthal 4 – Princess Statistics: The Fairest of Them All


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/05/29

Dr. Jeffrey S. Rosenthal is a Professor of Statistics at the University of Toronto. Here we talk about critical thinking and Knock on Wood. Here we talk about statistics and education.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How can we make the case for mandatory statistics education?

Professor Jeffrey Rosenthal: Well, I’m a bit cautious about making things “mandatory” since I don’t like to tell other people what to do. But I certainly think that the more statistics people learn, the better. Most of us won’t become statisticians, but just having a little bit of understand of how randomness works, which probabilities are small and which are large, what statistical conclusions are valid or not valid, and so on, can go a long way towards better understanding the world, making wiser decisions, and having a deeper appreciation for the randomness all around us.

Jacobsen: Have increasing lifespans increased our aversion to risk?

Rosenthal: I’m not sure if they have, but statistically speaking it would make sense. Often risk takes the form of achieving some short-term pleasure or satisfaction, in exchange for having a certain probability of death or serious injury or other life-changing tragedy. And the longer your lifespan, the more you stand to lose if something bad happens, so the more seriously you should take those probabilities of very negative outcomes. On the other hand, many risks — like airplane crashes and so on — have such small probabilities that they really should be ignored, no matter how long your lifespan is.

Jacobsen: As a statistician, how do you prefer to vote? What is your strategy? What type of voting leads to the fairest outcomes statistically?

Rosenthal: Well, every voting system (first past the post, mixed-member proportional representation, preferential ranked lists, single transferable vote, etc.) has advantages and disadvantages. But whatever system you’ve got, it makes sense to take the system into account when choosing how to vote. So, in our first past the post-national elections, the reality is that just one person will be elected in each riding, and there are no points for second
place. So, I often vote “strategically”, meaning that I take into account predictions based on polls and past votes to see who the leading candidates are likely to be, and then choose among them, instead of “wasting” a vote on a candidate with no chance of winning. Some people think such voting is a shame, but actually, I think it is just making the most reasonable decision under the circumstances. And it’s one reason (of several) that I actually like public opinion polls — despite their many flaws, they give us the best snapshot of people’s opinions and intentions, for voting and beyond. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Rosenthal.


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