Regression to the Mean

In this somber time, asking what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known sounds like the setup for a punchline, something like “2+2=4” or “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We can make a joke like that, but the truth the joke reveals is that “science” is indeed very much a human conception and construction. Science is all in our minds, even as we see dramatic examples of the use of that science all around us.      

So this year’s question is really a question about where to begin: What is there that we should all know that we don’t know as well as we should, don’t apply to our everyday and extraordinary challenges as tellingly as we could, and don’t pass on to children in nursery rhymes and the like?     

My candidate is an old, simple, and powerful one: the law of regression to the mean. It’s a concept from the discipline of statistics, but in real life it means that anomalies are anomalies, coincidences happen (all the time, with stunning frequency), and the main thing they tell us is that the next thing to happen is very likely to be a lot more boring, ordinary, and predictable. Put in the simplest human terms, it teaches us not to be so excitable, not to be so worried, not to be so excited: Life really will be, for the most part, boring and predictable.      

The ancient and late antique intellectuals whom I spend my life studying wouldn’t talk so much about miracles and portents if they could calm down and think about the numbers. The baseball fans thrilled to see the guy on a hitting streak come to the plate wouldn’t be so disappointed when he struck out. Even people reading election returns would see much more normality lurking inside shocking results than television reporters can admit.      

Heeding the law of regression to the mean would help us slow down, calm down, pay attention to the long term and the big picture, and react with a more strategic patience to crises large and small. We’d all be better off. Now if only I could think of a good nursery rhyme for it . . .