Whether contemplating the pros and cons of climate change; the role of evolution; the risks versus benefits of vaccines, cancer screening, proper nutrition, genetic engineering; trickle-down versus bottom-up economic policies; or how to improve local traffic, we must be comfortable with a variety of statistical and scientific methodologies, complex risk-reward and probability calculations – not to mention an intuitive grasp of the difference between fact, theory and opinion. Even moral decisions, such as whether or not to sacrifice one life to save five (as in the classic trolley-car experiment), boil down to often opaque calculations of the relative value of the individual versus the group.
If we are not up to the cognitive task, how might we be expected to respond? Will we graciously acknowledge our individual limits and readily admit that others might have more knowledge and better ideas? Will those uneasy with numbers and calculations appreciate and admire those who are? Or is it more likely that a painful-to-acknowledge sense of inadequacy will promote an intellectual defensiveness and resistance to ideas not intuitively obvious?