Monday, October 8, 2007

lots of fried ants, lots and lots of fried ants...

Mark Liberman has a post on Language Log on the Piraha and other Amazonian tribes who apparently manage quite happily without numbers and can't see why their lives are blighted by the absence of a distinction between, as it might be, 3 and 7, let alone such concepts as the 5-, 6- and 7-figure deal. Liberman points out that a similar situation obtains in Western societies, where basic concepts of statistics and probability have been deveoped in only the last 100 years or so and have yet to win widespread understanding or use.

3 comments:

Jenny Davidson said...

Yes--probability is often deeply counterintuitive even when we do understand its rudiments, and the psychology experiments (or intersection of psychology and economics) really do seem to show how little we are suited to thinking in these ways...

Elatia Harris said...

Mark Liberman is the last of the polymaths, a man with whom it's very hard to credibly disagree. And I don't disagree with him. However, in reading his argument that we are as stat-challenged as the Piraha are innumerate, with only the odd-individual-out in either culture even twigging to the disastrous implications of that, I could not help wondering whether knowing 3 from 7, and even learning why things might go better for you if you did, is the same thing as mastering enough math meaningfully to tackle probability -- unless Liberman is talking about learning to make book. If as Jenny Davidson points out probability is counterintuitive, then counting -- at least up to 10 -- is so natural as to seem inevitable. Inevitable to whom, though? Not to the Piraha, who are protected by not seeing the necessity to bend their minds to the task. Perhaps they are most like us in feeling perfectly unmenaced by the scope of their ignorance, in troubling to learn only what they find necessary.

Language said...

Elatia: I don't really understand your comment. The point is not that people should understand the mathematics of probability sufficiently to derive the appropriate equations themselves, the point is that they should grasp the basic concepts enough to realize that their fear of (say) flying is foolish when set against their cheerfully getting into cars every day with many, many times the risk of dying. That's just one of the innumerable ways we go wrong by operating according to irrational feelings rather than facts. It's as if we continued to act on the idea that the earth is flat and the universe revolves around it (which any fool can see!) rather than accepting the findings of scientists on the matter.