Friday, September 25, 2009

Statistical Sophistry

Numbers are all the rage. Our airways are flooded with numbers that explain, analyze, categorize, interpret and order. Numbers never lie, we are told; they are better than the Ten Commandments and more accurate. The Commandments are fuzzy and ambiguous, too open to contradictory interpretation to qualify as efficient guidelines. (Is it Thou shall not kill or Thou shall not murder?)

No, numbers never lie, they just distort. The first rule of statistical analysis is, “If you can’t think, count.” The result is a statistical sophistry that pawns itself off as truth.

· If the banks are insolvent, simply stop marking their toxic assets to market, mark them to model and, suddenly, they are solvent.
· If you redefine “unemployment” to exclude certain categories of the jobless, the numbers suddenly look better.
· If you exclude food and fuel from the Consumer Price Index, you tame inflation even though our out-of-pocket expenses are increasing. But, that’s not inflation because the statistics say it isn’t. It simply means that we’re spending more.
· If students get good test scores, they’re smart, even though they can’t think.

It all boils down to the bottom line. If that looks good, it is good. You can’t quantify the gut-wrenching experience of hunger or poverty, all you can do is count the number of poor people using a statistical definition.

The nice thing about statistics is that they never smell of unwashed bodies or resound with the cry of a hungry child. As such, they fail to engage us or stir us to action. Okay, so 80 percent of the world lives on less than US$2.50 a day. Isn’t it a shame that 25,000 children die daily due to poverty related conditions?

All they are is dry numbers, numbers we hear so often we’re numbed to them. Nothing to be done except fold the newspaper, gulp down the lost of our coffee and leave for work, confident that the economy is improving because the numbers tell it is.

Corporations print their spreadsheets on thick paper so the blood of the innocent can’t soak through. War is bloodless if reduced to body counts and metrics. As long as an enterprise gives its stockholders a good return on investment it makes no difference how destructive to people and the environment its activities are.

The numbers lead us around by the nose. They measure our lives and tell us how to think. If Obama’s numbers are up, he’d doing a good joy; if they’re down, he isn’t. If a movie grossed $45 million dollars on the day it opened, it must be good. If “Dancing with the Stars” gets good numbers, it a success no matter how badly the show sucks.

Numbers rattle around in our empty minds like dried beans in a tin can. They dazzle and confuse as they goosestep across screens and paper in rand and file order. They are the dry tit we all suck on in the belief it is giving us sustenance, and we mistake the dust we that fills our mouths for milk and can’t understand why we are losing weight.

7 comments:

david m said...

Yeah! corporate bureaucrats and political hacks are giving numbers a bad rap.That old line that "numbers don't lie" just doesn't work any more. Maybe it never did.

JaneZ said...

Back in the day, this was called cheating.

All of the cheaters need to be expelled.

Case Wagenvoord said...

Jane,

Now it's called spin.


Dave,

Who was it who said there are lies, damn lies and statistice?

Anonymous said...

numbers only numb the mind. they are boring, tedious and go on to form a part of crummy maths problems. and as far as stats are concerned don't even get me started. there are lies, damned lies and statistics. everyone knows its only a matter of getting your facts right and then you can mold them as you like. maths is cold steel-like. rather like a scalpel. it reeks of formaldehyde and ether and there is no hearth-like warmth in it. so what if it has produced science. science creates just as many problems as it solves. so there.

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