Issue five of #24MAG is now online and you can read it here. The theme of this issue is data, and so I wrote a short story about how people tend to focus on the outliers in their data, rather than focus on the general trend; specifically how one guy keeps making the same mistakes in his relationships because, this one time, it worked.
I’m really proud of the piece, not least because it’s outside of my general oeuvre, in that it’s about relationships and hard emotional breakups and not about, say, Batman. Thanks to some great editing from Rose Fox and Sara Eileen Hames, it’s a story about a three dimensional person and his human mistakes, and not a polemic about logical fallacies, and is all the stronger for it.
That said, I still want to write that polemic, and I have my own blog and so here goes.
The thing about data is that it’s boring. At least it should be. If you’re doing it right, then the statistics gathered should match the real world, and if the results are surprising, then either there’s something wrong with your study (most likely) and there’s something wrong with your general understanding of the world (unlikely but actually really exciting).
The number one cause of death in America is heart disease. We should be terrified of heart disease, much more so than we are of terrorism, or plane crashes, or bird flu. But we’re not. Not that there aren’t doctors and organizations committed to fighting heart disease and making us healthier, but someone dying of a heart attack isn’t front page news. It’s common. It’s expected.
Instead we focus on the outliers, because that’s where the stories are. Something, anything, happening “against all odds” is interesting. And someone succeeding “against all odds” is heroic. Romantic.
So we tell stories about the “unlikely hero.” The “star-crossed lovers.” The “one in a million chances.” Even when we tell stories about our lives, we don’t start, “the same thing happened today that happened for the last hundred days.” We start, “The craziest thing happened at work today!”
In this way, all fiction is speculative fiction. Even if it has nary a ray gun or a vampire, the story is about the unlikely thing happening. If most cross-cultural relationships fail, this about the one that works. If most murdered women are killed by their husbands, this is about the time that the husband was framed.
The problem is when people so focus on the the outlier they cannot see the trend.
Some of this is willful self-delusion, because the outlier is the desired result. Having proof that at least one time the world worked exactly they way they wanted it to, they ignore the overwhelming amount of times it does not (i.e. those who believe abstinence-only education reduces teen pregnancy, despite every study showing that it has exactly the opposite result).
There are those so inured by fiction to expect the unexpected that they expect the unexpected in real life too. I’ve heard it called the Perry Mason effect, where jurors expect every case to have some kind of twist. Every cop show they’ve ever seen shows that the first suspect is never the actual culprit, so no matter how slam-dunk the case, prosecutors find jury trials risky because there’s always the chance that one of the jurors thinks this is 12 Angry Men and they’re Henry Fonda.
It’s the difference between a good gambler and a bad one. A good gambler believes in probability, a bad one believes in luck. The good gambler bets on the most likely outcome, while the bad gambler bets on the outcome that would be best for him, or most exciting for him, or the one he believes an inexplicable, supernatural force will cause, i.e. he’s feeling “lucky”.
It’s fun to read about the outliers, because they are good stories, but we cannot lead out lives guided by them. We can want our lives to be more exciting than they are, but we cannot expect them to be. By definition, we cannot expect the unexpected to happen, nor should we. Believing in the improbable is a recipe for disaster. Falling in love with an outlier will only break your heart.