Feelings will simply lead to erroneous conclusions

Please allow me a few lines to correct two rather large errors in Bill Stuebing’s recent letter to the editor about crime in Red Deer.

Please allow me a few lines to correct two rather large errors in Bill Stuebing’s recent letter to the editor about crime in Red Deer.

First, Stuebing alleges that I “endorse” a Maclean’s report suggesting that Red Deer is “awash” in crime. But my letter is still available online, so subscribers can easily confirm that I said no such thing.

Second, Stuebing grossly misunderstands my objection against his repeated appeals to his “feelings” to support a particular interpretation of crime statistics. For instance, Stuebing objects to Maclean’s depiction of Red Deer’s crime rate, saying he doesn’t “feel” he’ll be a victim of crime tomorrow.

But the Maclean’s report doesn’t actually imply that Stuebing will be a victim of crime tomorrow. And even if it did, his “feelings” wouldn’t be reliable evidence to the contrary. Here’s why.

You see, for several decades, researchers in a wide variety of disciplines have come to increasingly understand that when ordinary people rely on their “feelings” or “intuitions or “gut reactions” (call them what you will) about certain questions, they frequently and reliably come to erroneous conclusions.

This has been observed and experimentally confirmed in such widely divergent areas of human cognition as logical inference, moral reasoning, probability and risk assessment. In the latter case, many people either wildly over or underestimate actual risks.

For example, after 9/11, many Americans avoided air travel fearing another terrorist attack. Instead, they drove more, because they “felt’ driving was safer. The statistics, of course, told another story, and as a result, an additional 1,580 people needlessly died in auto accidents in the U.S. in the year following 9/11.

So it’s obvious that an unreflective trust in our feelings can lead to disastrous consequences. And all this has been known by many social scientists for decades.

That’s why, well into the 21st century, it’s surprising to see Stuebing still presenting his “feelings” as expert opinion.

Guillermo Barron

Red Deer