My wife and I were talking over dinner the other night – she’d seen some interview with the owner of a personal data protection service, and he made the pitch for his company by saying something about how out of (say) a million customers, only one hundred had ever reported any attempts on their credit information or the like. And my wife, who spent many years in the lab, waiting for what seemed to her to be the obvious follow-up question: How many people out of a million that didn’t subscribe to this guy’s service report such problems?
But (to her frustration) that question was never asked. We speculated about the reasons for that, partly out of interest and partly as a learning experience for our two children, who were at the table with us. We first explained to them that both of us, since we’d done a lot of scientific experiments, always wanted to see some control-group data before we made up our minds about anything – and in fact, in many cases it was impossible to make up one’s mind without it.
After a brief excursion to talk about the likely backgrounds and competencies of news readers on TV, we then went on to say that looking for a control set isn’t what you could call a universal habit of mind, although it's a useful one to have. You don’t have to have scientific training to think that way (although it sure helps), but anyone with a good eye for business and finance asks similar questions. And as we told the kids, both of us had also seen (on the flip side) particularly lousy scientists who kept charging ahead without good controls. Still, the overlap with a science and engineering background is pretty good.
What I’ve wondered, since that night is how many people, watching that same show, had the same question. That would be a reasonable way to determine how many of them have the first qualification for analyzing the data that come their way. And I’m just not sure what the percentage would be, for several reasons. For one thing, I’ve been working in the lab for years now, so such thinking is second nature to me. And for another, I’ve been surrounded for an equal number of years, by colleagues and friends who tend to have science backgrounds themselves, so it’s not like my data set is representative of the population at large.
So I’d be interested in what the readership thinks, not that the readership around here is any representative slice of the general population, either. But in your experience, how prevalent do you think that analytical frame of mind is? The attitude I’m talking about is the one that when confronted with some odd item in the news, says “Hmm, I wonder if that's true? Have I got enough information to decide?" It's an essential part of being a scientist, but if you're not. . .?