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Guest columnist Will Cooper blames the lack of context for decision-making irrationality. 

Context matters. Take this simple statement: Nearly ten percent of the world’s people live in extreme poverty. 

This is true. And standing alone, without context, this statement would lead many to think the world has a huge poverty problem. They'd be right. But they'd also be missing a big part of the story: Just twenty-five years ago, nearly 30 percent of people lived in extreme poverty.

So the world’s extreme poverty problem is actually getting much better. 

The prospects for the future would be very different if, instead of steadily improving, extreme poverty was stagnating at nearly ten percent. Or, worse, if extreme poverty was steadily increasing. But there's no way of knowing which of these distinct scenarios is true from the statement alone.

You need context.

Terrorism is another good example of how context matters. The events of Sept. 11 of 2001, highlighted the great dangers of terrorism. But how does terrorism compare to other threats? While terrorists have killed about 3,000 Americans since 2000, over 20,000 Americans die by homicide or murder annually. And more than 38,000 die from traffic accidents each year.

Is terrorism, in context, as threatening as some think? Did it make sense for the federal government to create the mammoth Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 while underfunding pandemic preparedness the last two decades?

Hardly.

There are subtler examples, too. Many politicians love to brag about the stock market setting “records.” “The Dow Jones reached a new record on my watch” is a common boast from incumbents. But looking at the stock market in context shows—surprise, surprise—these statements are highly misleading. The stock market is a cumulative tally—it never resets to zero. It also always goes up over time because, on average, publicly traded companies get bigger as they mature. A new market high is a very different record from, say, baseball's single-season home run record, which requires extraordinary performance. In stark contrast, the stock market can break records even while increasing at below-average rates.

People embrace facts out of context all the time. (And not just politicians.) They disregard trend lines. They ignore the net impact of something and focus on discrete effects. They gloss over comparables and instead focus on isolated samples. They confuse outliers and aberrations with the mean or the median. And many have trouble with scale, hardly distinguishing 100 million units of something from a billion units. 

Anecdotal thinking is particularly widespread. People often tell stories that support their worldview without considering the big picture. Global warming deniers, for example, describe dramatic blizzards to show that the world is not warming. But to know whether there's global warming, you need to know, well, whether the globe is warming—not how much snow there was in Green Bay last December 18. And the data clearly establish that Earth, on the whole, is getting hotter. In many cases, like global warming, context is not just important—it is a necessary precondition to understanding something at all. 

In his new book, "Rationality," Harvard professor Steven Pinker explores why humanity “appears to be losing its mind.” How can the same species "that developed vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year,” Pinker wonders, “produce so much fake news, medical quackery and conspiracy theorizing?”

We do indeed have a rationality problem. And one of the core reasons why is that people draw the wrong conclusions about what they see. Again and again. Taking the time to put things in context would help. 

A lot.

William Cooper is an attorney who has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and USA Today, among others.

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(4) comments

Seymour Trout

It’s true that the Earth is getting warmer since the 1600s, but the promoters of man-made global warming claim that it is due to industrialization, which only started a bit over a century ago. Clearly, natural forces are driving the current warming trend, not humans. Context is everything.

Climate Change

Context is not everything, but it's very important, and you're certainly missing a lot. Over 50 years of climate research in fact, and some common sense. First of all, to call those who believe in the science of climate change promoters is simply disingenuous. Industrialization began around 2 centuries ago which is irrelevant. You are oversimplifying the entire problem: "because the Earth was warming before industrialization, clearly industrialization is not causing this and it's nature". What if natural warming can and does occur, but overall warming of the Earth has sped up due to humans? Natural forces is a bad way to refer to non- human causes anyways. The mechanisms of climate change are all "natural forces" ex. greenhouse effect.

Seymour Trout

On the contrary, calling true believers in man-made climate change promoters is generous. Calling them members of a global warming cult is more accurate. Industrialization began with the steam engine but there weren’t many steam engines around until the 1900s when mass industrialization began.

That’s an interesting theory you’ve got there about humans speeding up an existing warming trend. All you need now is prove it. All you offer us is speculation, which is not science.

All those years of climate research has only given us endless predictions of cooling then warming, none of which have come true. If your predictions are false, your science is false.

Facts and Logic

Oh Will, what a fun article! I think you missed a few examples of people missing context, so I'll help fill you in!

1. American troops in Afghanistan: While it seemed having troops in Afghanistan was ridiculous and 'never-ending', in the CONTEXT of the number of troops committed, troops currently in other countries, and effects of pulling out, it should have been a no-brainer to keep troops in Afghanistan.

2. Covid-19: While it is a disease, and a pandemic, in the CONTEXT of other pandemics (and even other serious illnesses), it is relatively not that deadly - and certainly not worth destroying an economy and livelihoods over.

3. The so-called 'racism in policing': If you look at statistics, especially those concerning total police encounters by year and actual death statistics, the CONTEXT will show you widespread racism and police brutality is absolutely a fabricated myth.

4. The January 6th riot at the Capital: While absolutely despicable, in the CONTEXT of the widespread rioting, looting, and damaging of other federal buildings over the entire summer before, it seems to have been a little blown out of proportion by the media.

5. The media: While the media (and this newspaper) act as if they know everything and are morally better than the rest of us, in the CONTEXT of reality, it's pretty obvious they are little more than cheap political actors.

4. Even Donald Trump's tweets! While at the time they seemed (and some undoubtedly were) obnoxious and unnecessary, in the CONTEXT of this dumpster fire of this administration, they were simply an unfortunate aspect of an otherwise extremely effective administration.

Looks like you missed a few examples and a little context in your article! That's a little ironic, it's almost as if it was on purpose or something....

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