Check Your Base
By David Henderson
In our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, my co-author, Charles Hooper, and I have a chapter titled, “Biases Affect the Best of Us.” I thought of one section of that chapter when I read co-blogger Arnold Kling’s quote from Robert Higgs and then went to the original Higgs post. In the post, titled, “Who Is Most Likely to Oppose Totalitarianism?,” Higgs had written:
I have devoted much of my scholarship over the years to studies of the state–its nature, its growth, and its relationships with other aspects of social life. I have been struck repeatedly by a certain fact about episodes of sudden or extraordinary expansion of the state: when push came to shove, those who resisted–often to the death–tended to be people of faith. In U.S. history they included primarily Anabaptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other marginalized Protestant sects. In Nazi Germany, many of the regime’s opponents were Roman Catholics, as were the opponents in Poland under Communist rule. Atheists as a class did not distinguish themselves as resisters of tyranny or totalitarianism, although some individual atheists did resist.
In one section of our chapter, titled, “Check Your Base,” Charley and I wrote:
Many people make the mistake of not checking their base. The following example explains what we mean:
Person A: I was surprised that I met this really serious person from California. I thought everyone in California is relaxed and mellow.
Person B: There are 35 million people in California. Many of them are serious.
At a truly national event, such as a scientific conference or a square dancing convention with people from all over the country, you would have a much higher chance of finding a serious person from California than from another state, such as Iowa. This is true even if Iowans in general are more serious; there are just so many more people from California. Say one out of three Californians is serious and that double that fraction of Iowans, that is, two out of three Iowans, are serious. Given California’s population of 35 million and Iowa’s population of three million people, there are about 12 million serious Californians versus only two million serious Iowans. You are six times as likely to come across a serious Californian as a serious Iowan, even though Iowans are twice as likely to be serious. The real question is what you’re doing at a square dancing convention looking for serious people. 🙂
There were probably way more religious people than atheists in each of the cases Higgs cites. So what we would really want to know is the probability that a given religious person would oppose tyranny and the probability that a given atheist would oppose tyranny. I have no prior view on that and, unfortunately, Higgs doesn’t give evidence on that. I think very highly of Bob Higgs–both as a person and as an analyst. So here’s a case where our chapter title applies: biases really did affect the best of us. Higgs forgot to check his base.