Magical Thinking – Math is Hard!

In short, whatever you thought about George Zimmerman before, you still think of him now. That seems to be about par for this course; people formed opinions very early, and by a few days after the story broke, those opinions were pretty much inalterable. People claimed to be basing their opinions on the facts, but many of those facts were bogus. Either they were erroneous reports that had been disproved (Trayvon Martin beat up a homeless guy; George Zimmerman had no injuries and told the dispatcher that Martin was suspicious because he was black), or they were fairly extreme extrapolation of stuff that did happen.

(see video below for solution, i.e., reality)

But in a way, even more remarkable are the stories that people tell about how the confrontation went down. I heard a lot of commentary to the effect that Zimmerman was guilty, morally if not legally, because he was a “wannabe cop” and “vigilante” who got out of that car because the gun on his hip made the whiny little coward feel all powerful and manly, and he knew that he could always take refuge in Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law if he shot some poor black kid. From conservatives, I heard that Martin was a “wannabe thug” who decided to take down the “creepy-ass cracker” for disrespecting him. These stories were inevitably presented not as possibilities, but as facts, as serious as cancer and as real as next week.

This is absurd. It’s not that these stories aren’t possible; they certainly are. I can easily imagine someone feeling safer, more willing to risk a confrontation, because he had a gun at his back. And I can easily imagine a 17-year-old boy deciding to haul off and hit someone who he felt was disrespecting him; I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes.

But my ability to imagine such stories doesn’t mean that they’re true. It is not even true that the thing I find easiest to imagine is the thing that is the most likely to have happened. What I find easy to imagine tells you a lot about me. It does not tell you all that much about other people, or the world.

Parents find it easy to imagine their child being kidnapped by a stranger, which is why many children under the age of 12 or 13 are now escorted everywhere by a parent or another trusted adult. But stranger abductions are incredibly rare and always have been, even in the days when first-graders regularly walked themselves to school. Parents find it easy to imagine their children dying in a gun accident, which is why you hear about parents who won’t have guns in the house, and refuse to let their kids play at the homes of parents who do. But those sorts of accidental shootings involving young children are about as rare as stranger abductions. On the other hand, very few parents would say “I won’t let you play at their house — they have a swimming pool,” even though drowning is one of the most common ways for young children to die. Economist Steven Levitt estimates that swimming pools are about 100 times more dangerous than a gun in the home.

Why do we overestimate rare risks, and underestimate common ones? Because the rare ones make the news. When a child is abducted, or shot, it is certain to make the evening newscast. On the other hand, “child drowns at home after falling into pool (or filled bathtub, or bucket)” is a personal tragedy, not a news story. We are led astray by “availability bias”: We think that things we can call to mind most easily are also the most likely.

What I know is that we find it very easy to imagine the worst of people who are not like us. And we frequently confuse our imaginations with reality.

George Zimmerman and the Power of Bias (emphasis added)



Unfortunately, it seems that the future Aldous Huxley predicted in 1932, in Brave New World, is arriving early. Mockery, truculence, and minimalist living are best, then enjoy the decline. However, we do need a Revolving Door Tax (RDT), learn what Members of Congress pay in taxes, and prosecute politicians and staff and their “family and friends” who profit from insider trading. Oh, and pay “public servants” what they are worth.

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