At the beginning of the 20th century the father of modern science fiction, Herbert George Wells, said in his writings on politics, "If we want to have an educated citizenship in a modern technological society, we need to teach them three things: reading, writing, and statistical thinking." At the beginning of the 21st century, how far have we gotten with this program? In our society, we teach most citizens reading and writing from the time they are children, but not statistical thinking. John Alan Paulos has called this phenomenon innumeracy.

There are many stories documenting this problem. For instance, there was the weather forecaster who announced on American TV that if the probability that it will rain on Saturday is 50 percent and the probability that it will rain on Sunday is 50 percent, the probability that it will rain over the weekend is 100 percent. In another recent case reported by New Scientist an inspector in the Food and Drug Administration visited a restaurant in Salt Lake City famous for its quiches made from four fresh eggs. She told the owner that according to FDA research every fourth egg has salmonella bacteria, so the restaurant should only use three eggs in a quiche. We can laugh about these examples because we easily understand the mistakes involved, but there are more serious issues. When it comes to medical and legal issues, we need exactly the kind of education that H. G. Wells was asking for, and we haven't gotten it.

What interests me is the question of how humans learn to live with uncertainty. Before the scientific revolution determinism was a strong ideal. Religion brought about a denial of uncertainty, and many people knew that their kin or their race was exactly the one that God had favored. They also thought they were entitled to get rid of competing ideas and the people that propagated them. How does a society change from this condition into one in which we understand that there is this fundamental uncertainty? How do we avoid the illusion of certainty to produce the understanding that everything, whether it be a medical test or deciding on the best cure for a particular kind of cancer, has a fundamental element of uncertainty?

For instance, I've worked with physicians and physician-patient associations to try to teach the acceptance of uncertainty and the reasonable way to deal with it. Take HIV testing as an example. Brochures published by the Illinois Department of Health say that testing positive for HIV means that you have the virus. Thus, if you are an average person who is not in a particular risk group but test positive for HIV, this might lead you to choose to commit suicide, or move to California, or do something else quite drastic. But AIDS information in many countries is running on the illusion of certainty. The actual situation is rather like this: If you have about 10,000 people who are in no risk group, one of them will have the virus, and will test positive with practical certainty. Among the other 9,999, another one will test positive, but it's a false positive. In this case we have two who test positive, although only one of them actually has the virus. Knowing about these very simple things can prevent serious disasters, of which there is unfortunately a record.

Still, medical societies, individual doctors, and individual patients either produce the illusion of certainty or want it. Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin's adage that there is nothing certain in this world except death and taxes, but the doctors I interviewed tell me something different. They say, "If I would tell my patients what we don't know, they would get very nervous, so it's better not to tell them." Thus, this is one important area in which there is a need to get people — including individual doctors or lawyers in court — to be mature citizens and to help them understand and communicate risks.

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