The Folly of the Availability Heuristic: Example #3271

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Robert Wright had a wonderful commentary in the NYTimes On-Line recently.  noted it in Reason Hit & Run as well.  This quote from Wright sums up my feelings about as well as I could ever hope, “It worries me that this Toyota thing worries us so much.”  We humans tend to view recent events as more important than distant events, regardless of the objective data.  That is what is meant by the availability heuristic.  I don’t worry, however, about the problems with this cognitive tendency in a vacuum.  Hell, such misinterpretations of data are relatively common, even among scientists.  Rather, I worry about how such misinterpretations will be used.  As Wright notes:

We live in a world where responding irrationally to risk (say, the risk of a terrorist attack) can lead us to make mistakes (say, invading Iraq). So the Toyota story is a kind of test of our terrorism-fighting capacity — our ability to keep our wits about us when things seem spooky.

Wright further says our response to these situations, “depends on politicians resisting the temptation to score cheap points via the exploitation of irrational fear.”  Politicians resisting the temptation to score cheap points?  That’s about as likely as Lady Gaga being invited to keynote at the Republican National Convention.

11:57 am on March 21, 2010