Yes definitely! So when you ask people ‘how common is X’, there’s a lot of research suggesting that what they actually ask themselves is ‘how easily can I think of an example of X’. If I ask you ‘how common are plane crashes’, you’ll probably search your brain for a plane crash, remember there was one reported just a week ago, remember there’ve been others reported recently, and overestimate how common they are.
And since anything interesting happening anywhere in the world will make headlines, and since the events that fit local political narratives will get lots of reblogs on tumblr, people will end up with a very skewed mental picture of how often things happen.
A good rule for helping maintain an accurate gut intuition about how common problems are is to look up statistics and read about the things in proportion to how often they happen. For instance, a while ago I ran across a cluster of blogs by people who detransitioned and were very anti-trans. Reading those blogs threw my gut intuitions out of whack, so I looked up what percentage of trans people detransition (it’s about 5%) and decided to read one blog by a trans people who detransitioned for every 19 by a trans person who did not. This is a good way to keep the availability heuristic in check and make sure my instincts match reality.
19% of the planet lives on less than $1/day, and I doubt that one fifth of the blog posts you read are written by them.
- Eliezer Yudkowsky, Availability
But sometimes this is impossible. Take plane crashes. Something like 18 million passenger flights happen every year, and like one of them crashes. So to be responsible, we’d have to spent 18 million times as much energy thinking about safe planes happily landing as we spend thinking about crashes. If you spent two minutes reading about a plane crash you’d have to spent every minute of the rest of the year sleeplessly thinking about all the safe planes in order to get the ratio of crashes-to-safe-landings that reflects reality.
Since this is impossible, it’s probably bad practice to signal boost incredibly rare things and therefore screw with our intuitions about how often they occur. I’m not very tempted to blog about plane crashes, but when a feminist does an awful thing I am very tempted to blog all about it despite the same principles being at play. There are websites that do nothing but collect news stories about false rape accusations - basically, deliberately skewing their readers’ availability heuristic to believe most rape accusations are false - and I’m comfortable saying that is a malicious and despicable thing. So I’d better be sure I’m not doing the same thing to my ideological enemies.