Aldersey-Williams e Briscoe – Panicology

Aldersey-Williams, Hugh e Simon Briscoe (2009). Panicology: Two Statisticians Explain What’s Worth Worrying About (and What’s Not) in the 21st Century. New York: Skyhorse. 2009. ISBN 9781602396449. Pagine 304. 10,30 $


Quello di cui questo libro ha da dire è ben riassunto dal sottotitolo: liberamente traducibile in “Due statistici spiegano di che cosa preoccuparsi (e di che cosa invece no) nel XXI secolo.” Ancora di più ci aiuta la sinossi resa disponibile da Amazon:

What exactly are your chances of being struck by a meteorite?
Think you’re having less sex than the French?
How high will sea levels actually rise?
We live in an increasingly uncertain world. There’s so much to worry about it is often hard to know what to really panic about. But stay calm! For Panicology is the perfect answer to the conundrums and questions that bedevil modern life. Putting a lit match to the lies, headlines and statistical twaddle that seeks to frighten us, it explores 40 reasons for worry: from binge-drinking to Frankenstein foods, bird flu to alien abductions – and explores what, if any, effect they will have on your life.
Why worry in ignorance when you can be a happy, informed sceptic?

I due scrivono molto bene (sono inglesi, non americani, e questo aggiunge in humour senza togliere nulla alla chiarezza), ma il libro è a volte un po’ superficiale. Non mi piace per nulla (lo trovo troppo puerile) la piccola trovata di dare un punteggio da 1 a 5 ai diversi aspetti del panico (rappresentato da una gallina in fuga), del rischio (i dadi) e di quanto in nostro potere (un pugno chiuso).

Per me, anche per motivi professionali, la parte più interessante è l’Introduzione, dove gli autori spiegano chiaramente la loro filosofia e che cosa li ha spinti a scrivere il libro: il panico è una pulsione forte e irrazionale, che non soltanto ci fa stare male, ma è anche una pessimo consigliere nelle scelte da fare. Soltanto il senso critico e l’informazione quantitativa attendibile ci possono aiutare: in questo, i temi di Aldersley-Williams (l’autore di Periodic Tales, che sto leggendo) e Briscoe (ex Statistics Editor del Financial Times e attualmente vice-presidente di Timetric) sono affini a quelli trattati da Dan Gardner in Risk, che ho recensito di recente.

Il loro spirito è ben riassunto (sempre nell’Introduzione) da una citazione tratta da Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds di Charles Mackay Il libro è nel pubblico dominio e lo trovate qui):

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.


Qualche citazione. Il riferimento è come di consueto alle posizioni sul Kindle:

Numbers are the “fact” generator in today’s society and the currency in any debate about risk. But they are not all of equal quality – some are manipulated by governments while others are produced by people with a vested interest. Often, proper figures don’t exist – they are opinion surveys or come from administrative systems that do not give us data on the definition we want, leading to poor policy and weaker assessment.Yet those who wish to make a point on television or in the newspapers do it using numbers. Sound-bite statistics, sometimes invented and often inaccurate, seize the imagination even if they crumble under close inspection. [106]

The only alternative is to retreat into anecdote and hopelessly selective assumptions. [115]

Temporary migration, based on a permit system, might be appealing to a skeptical public and might be acceptable for some categories of low-skilled workers, but such newcomers are likely to be less adaptable and integrate more slowly. Ongoing, regular labor needs are unlikely to be met most satisfactorily by recycling temporary workers. [1327]

It will then become clearer that globalization is about massive waves of income redistribution: from workers to consumers, as they can shop around ever more widely for cheaper goods;from expensive labor to cheap labor, as employment expands rapidly in developing countries; and from energy users toward energy producers, as the demand for energy soars in developing countries. [1522]

[…] the key labor market divide going forward will not be between high-skilled and low-skilled workers, but between services that can be delivered electronically from off-shore and those that cannot be. [1532]

“It is a profound privilege to die from stress-related diseases,” says a professor from Stanford University. The point he makes, of course, is that in developed countries we have never had it so good, and that worrying about stress is itself a sign of how charmed our lives are. As a society we have wealth, job choice, and travel opportunities unimaginable only a generation ago, and in our free time we can gamble, drink, surf the Internet, and watch television on super-sized plasma screens to our heart’s content. We have legal safeguards against many of society’s ills, and the hard toil and infectious diseases that filled the Victorian graveyards with youthful corpses have all but gone. And yet it seems we are as miserable as sin and bogged down with stress. [1596]

A study by Britain’s Health and Safety Executive, the government body responsible for health and safety regulation, suggested that about half a million workers suffered from work-related stress in the latest year, the largest category after backache. [1622]

Do we mean overwork, acute boredom, or something more medical, such as depression or anxiety? [1656: a proposito della troppo vaga definizione di stress]

The National Weather Service puts the average U.S. death toll due to lightning at seventy-three people a year; the global figure must be over a thousand. [1717]

Ideally, we should focus on conserving habitat – then the species that live there will be saved automatically. But being the sentimental souls we are, we prefer to cherish glamorous species of rare orchid or the iconic panda. Fortunately, this is almost as good. If the Chinese succeed in saving the panda – despite the country’s galloping industrialization, conservation efforts are doing well, and recent fieldwork has shown there are more pandas than were thought – it will be because they saved enough of its habitat, and with it hundreds of other species without really trying. [2415]

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So why is the magic now black? [2557]

[…] agriculture always has a detrimental effect on the natural ecology-that, in a sense, is its purpose. [2602]

It is impossible to prove a negative, however, and so doubts persist […] [2765]

[…] official agencies are increasingly taking into account not only scientific evidence but also the vagaries of public opinion, evidence-based or not. [2769]