“There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
— Mark Twain
I don’t know much about statistics as a discipline, so I’m speaking here mostly from the gut.
What I do know is that the discipline concerns the collection, organization, and mathematical interpretation of various statistical models. This “math” is then used to arrive at conclusions that may or may not be useful to commerce, industry, manufacturing, advertising, social relations, politics, and almost any subject of interest to the human condition.
We are awash in statistics these days. They are the primary means by which we make sense, or try to make sense, of our world. Yet, by their nature, statistics can often be quite misleading.
I am reminded of the observations of psychologist Carl G. Jung here. In one of his books, as I recall, he gave the example of using a bowl of pebbles to determine the nature of pebbles.
He said you could weigh them, measure them, determine their color, and do other things to determine what this thing called a pebble is and, at the end of your information gathering, it is likely you will know very little about real pebbles.
I think one of the main problems with statistics has to do with who is formulating the questions, the model that is used, and the selection of the statistical sample.
In each case, there are natural biases driving the formulation of questions. In other words, I don’t presume that trained statisticians automatically set out to tell little lies, or big lies. I think they are trying to find some sort of useful truth. More often than not, however, because of innate or social biases, I think they fail in this endeavor.
You may recall that someone once said something to the effect that, if your neighbor dies in an automobile accident, most of us would consider that a tragedy. If, however, a million people die in some far off place, it is a statistic.
I think, too, about the George Floyd killing. Mr. Floyd was a fairly ordinary man who was going about his life. To my knowledge, he had no dreams of changing the world, making the world a better place, or any such thing. He was just trying to get by.
On March 25, 2020, however, he was killed no doubt as a result of excessive police force in the process of a garden variety arrest so common among Black men. His death was caught on a cellphone video and, almost instantly, it became the subject of protest and outcry of millions of people all over the world.
Here, then, we have the death of what might be called an ordinary man who, due to circumstances, became more famous than he perhaps ever imagined; forced the re-evaluation of policing in America; may eventually change local, state, and federal laws; and forced the recognition that all of the governmental systems to which we are subjected really function within the ethos of a single system, a “system” that historically has been set against the African American male and, by consequence, his family, his neighbors, and his entire community.
Yet, he was just one man, a man we did not know. How is it possible to make any statistical sense of that?
As I mentioned earlier, we are awash in statistics of all sorts. I think, for example, of the regular reports on U.S. COVID deaths, hospitalizations, and asymptomatic impacts. These statistics are usually presented as raw numbers, and used as a statistical means of comparison with other countries where the deadly virus is rampant.
The problem with that is that every single person who was sickened or who died as a result of the pandemic probably — gut guess — represents at least six others — family, friends, co-workers, etc. — profoundly affected by that single person’s illness or death.
Consequently, if we are told that America has suffered over 550,000 deaths, that number and its accompanying statistics must be calculated by a factor of 6. What that calculation suggests is that COVID-19, in one way or another, has injured our country’s entire population — 330,000,000 men, women, and children. Still, medical researchers tell us that COVID risk in some population groups is “statistically insignificant.”
I suppose that is the essence of Mark Twain’s distaste for statistics. They can make us feel like we’re doing just fine as we hurtle toward disaster.
Have a nice day.