A friend of mine has just had a smart meter installed. With the sudden rise in energy prices they thought it would be good idea to keep an eye on the gas and electricity they used. Before he left, the engineer checked the smart meter was working correctly. As the kettle went on he saw the sudden rise in energy use dial. My friend was quite shocked to see the energy used turn into pounds spent. Seeing the shock in their face, as he left he said, probably best not look at the meter when you put the tumble drier on!
All through the day my friend became obsessed by watching the meter. Every cup of tea cost money, putting the heating on cost money. By the end of the day, having put on numerous layers of clothes because they had turned the heating off, having berated the kids for leaving lights on and the TV on standby one of the children turned and said,
‘We just can’t live like this!’.
There are so many things we do in life that we remain blissfully unaware of the consequences of those actions. Maybe if we have a meter for the calories we ate as we have that chocolate biscuit or the alcohol units we drink as we pour another glass of wine or the amount of clothes or shoes we have at home in the wardrobe as we buy another shirt, then maybe we would change our actions, maybe change the way we live. Would we make better decisions and predictions if we had accurate data to work from.
This got me thinking about how to use numbers in our daily life. Once you know the numbers and how they have worked in the past you can start to make predictions about the future.
As you might know by now I love BBC World Service. One of my favourite programmes is ‘More or Less presented by the ‘Undercover Economist’ Tim Harford. One of his recent programmes looked at ‘Reason, Numbers and Mr Spock’ with the help of mathematician Julia Galef who wrote a book ‘The Scout Mindset’
Mr Spock was known for having no emotions only reason. So, you would think if we want to act rationally having the numbers is essential.
‘The Scout Mindset’ means wanting to see things as accurately as possibly even if the truth is not pleasant. In the case of my friend it’s better to know that you’re spending to much on the central heating even if it means your nose is cold and you need to wear a hat indoors. The opposite position is ‘The Soldier Mindset’. Here someone has a firm set of preconceived ideas which they must defend e.g. It’s my right to be able to walk around the house dressed only in my vest and pants in the middle of winter so the central heating must be on full.
The Scout goes out to discover the truth, the soldier just defends a position.
Back to Mr Spock. Firstly, he makes confident and numerate statements to Captain Kirk…there is a 99.5% chance that if we enter that galaxy we will not survive. Julia went back through episodes of Star Trek looking at the predictions Mr Spock had made. She then looked at when his predictions were right and wrong, and she plotted them on a graph. It turned out the less likely he predicted an event the more likely it was to happen, and the less likely…well darn me, we weren’t ’t expecting those Klingons!
Julia goes on to say that The Scout Mindset allows you to be uncertain about predicting the future which allows you to change your actions as you get more information rather than sticking to the one position you believe in and you will hold until you die.
This happened during the COVID pandemic and the wearing of masks. At first there was no evidence wearing a mask would help prevent the spread of the virus. As time went on the science changed and the numbers showed that wearing a mask did reduce the chance of the spread. The Scout Mindset says let’s start wearing a mask, the soldier mindset say, I will defend my previously held position that masks don’t work.
Mr Spock was incredibly confident in his predictions but either his data, or his interpretation of the numbers was often quite wrong, and it was always difficult to get him to change his mind as that would be ‘Illogical’.
Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, unless you’re a bookmaker.
Julia says that a good way to judge your confidence in predicting a future event is the Ball test. Imagine you are asked if you are confident there will be driverless cars in 3 years and if there are you’ll get $1000.
On the other hand, you can put your hand into a bag with 10 balls. One of them is black. Pick the right ball and you get $1000 straight away. The choice is yours if there are Driverless cars in 3 years you get $1000 or you can try you luck picking out the black ball.
Julia says if you think you have more chance of being right picking out the black ball then you have less than 10% confidence in driver less cars in 3 years. As you change the number of balls in the bag, say one black ball in 20 in the bag you change the odds. When you decide to take your chances with the bag that shows your confidence in predicting the future.
Of course, none of this helps my friend with the new smart meter. In this case there are still 2 ways to view data. One is that ‘The numbers never lie’ and the other is ‘Lies, damn lies and Statistics’. And maybe there is a third way of thinking of the situation. Maybe the smart meter app is a brand new gizmo that will soon lose its appeal and its hold in the next few days as it gets colder outside, and the Christmas decoration lights go up.
It’s good to know the numbers, how we react to them is still up to us and often down to our long held beliefs.
Thanks to BBC World Service, More or Less, Reason, Numbers and Spock.