Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I have recently been having a most godly experience. I have been going from a man who rubs two sticks together to make flame, to a man who strikes flint, to a man who has a microwave.

It’s not a bad metaphor. I have been studying the numbers game. The numbers game is the world behind the curtain that defines everything in our lives. Not surprisingly, it seems to be a big game, so I don’t think I will be off to Vegas anytime soon, but it feels like it. The priests have been training me in formulas and theorems and advanced mysticism like Excel and SPSS and soon I will be able to spin webs with numbers and prophesize anything I like. . .correct?

Soon, I will be able to make numbers sing. I will be able to make them say anything I want them to say. I too can become an arcane priest of the numbers and show how they demonstrate we are in an age of abundance or an age of apocalypse, depending on my political and ideological proclivities. I will be like those terrifying hooded figures from primitive societies who determined which souls were to be sacrificed and which to be saved. My decisions, now, like then, will be motivated not by facts but by political evils

Because we all know numbers are pliable, numbers are meaningless outside of their intended context, right?

Ok, so I am not a priest of empirical value. We have axioms that guide us in this realm. One of them is “Not everything that is countable is worth counting and not everything that counts is countable.” And I also believe in the kind of prudence that comes with the precautionary principle--staying our hand when we are unsure of the consequences of our actions. The consumptionary folks play with this idea and confound conservatory actions with the notion that if a lack of sound knowledge exists, ecologically minded actions are not required. I don’t always need numbers to tell me what a sane and good course of action is.

But, in the absence of good sense, numbers aren’t so bad to fall back on. we are the scientific, technological species, we should be able to rally behind the almighty number, don’t you think?

When it comes to the finite limits of our planet, or the physio-chemical laws of our biosphere, we call up our priests and ask them to cast arcane spells with our most potent weapons. . .numbers. But then, if those priests give us an accurate count, then we cast the most heinous aspersions on them, and accuse them of devious plots. We imagine them to be part of an intricate and unlikely hoax to fleece the public of tax dollars—though I am not sure how that would work.

Now, I am as big a fan as any of conspiracy theories, and anti-institution theories, but this wide scale skepticism in all the number priests is truly bizarre.

I have to weigh my thinking against my daily life.

Sometimes I step into an elevator. Every time I do, I trust architects, engineers and construction personnel to have crunched numbers and built me a safe device to propel me upward to the heavens.

I have occasionally stepped onto an airplane. An airplane is the epitome of human ingenuity—nothing should be lighter than air. But I never worry about the physics of a plane when I am on it. I am more consumed with my cramped seat, not designed for Nordic descended folk, and am seriously incensed at the terrible films they choose for me. In short, I trust an army of number crunchers to not only keep me safely alive, but to whisk me, magic fashion, around the globe.

Where else can I find scientists that I am not trying to lynch for weird conspiracy theories?

Sometimes I go to the grocery store and buy some food. Every time I do that, I purchase things from massive industrial farms, things preserved or processed or transported using really advanced scientific methods. Sure, we take many of these methods for granted, but they are there all the same, and they exist due to armies of folk crunching numbers.

During the winter, I often catch a cold, sometimes it turns out not to be a cold, but some nasty flu or even pneumonia—I don't know what it is, I just feel sick, that's all I know. Some doctor determines whether I am sick and need to rest or whether I need some antibiotic,. To tell the truth, I am happy when it is something that requires an antibiotic, because then I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, when I will feel like a normal human being again. When they tell me I have a bad cold, I just have to be sick until I am not sick. . .holy unscientific! But, when the right bug is in me, we zap it faster than Flash Gordon can kiss Dale Arden. I never question what the doctor prescribes, or the people who engineer the concoction. I don't even question the people who dispense it. I just pop my happy pills and watch my symptoms disappear. How did this supremely convenient magic coalesce? Numbers. Lots and lots of numbers. And little nameless people crunching numbers.

Ok, I will pocket my flog, and walk away from my dying horse. The modern world, as we experience it on a day to day basis is a scientific and technological wonderland. And we trust and believe in these scientists and technicians over and over again before noon on any given day.

I wonder then, why all these millions of lay people, when informed of threats like environmental degradation, energy depletion, climate change, suddenly take the reins and declare these number crunchers to be either wrong, ignorant, colluded or corrupt. Suddenly, our religious observance of the scientific world we inhabit is sundered. Suddenly we question our priests. Suddenly we refuse to make any decisions based on what they say.

I have a professor, who is trying desperately to teach me the basics of statistics. He is an epidemiologist, by trade, and he believes really fucking strongly in numbers, and at the same time, he is a clever and witty critic of number crunchers.

One of the things he tries to make clear to us is that well collected numbers are real. Sometimes we can derive lots of interesting information from them that wasn’t immediately apparent, sometimes we can twist them, but contrary to the most popular of sayings, the numbers don't lie.

I suffer this class at a most unhumane hour on Monday mornings and have come to cherish this professor and his class because he tries to stamp out post-modern fuckery and instill in us the novel concept that we can measure things.

The atmosphere can be measured. It’s contents can be measured. The number of trees can be counted. What lives in the ocean can be counted. We can add up the amount of arable land and compare it to the number of people on the whole frickin planet. These aren’t shell games, they are verifiable numbers.

And yet, when questions of sustainability come up, suddenly those sciencey number people are suggested to be hucksters, cons and bald-faced liars. Suddenly they must be greedy hateful criminals who are trying to pull one over on us. I recognise the efforts that corporate interests have gone to, to discredit science, but I still have to drop my jaw in awe at how easily a public so dependent on science and numbers is willing to relinquish its trust and faith when those number priests say slow down or stop. (the Monbiot quote comes to mind--"no one has ever rioted for austerity")

Suddenly, even the most uneducated person is ready to overrule the number crunchers. Oh, he’ll still buy vitamins, and mount an elevator, he’ll undergo chemo treatment for a cancer, drive a car, eat genetically modified corn and trust his whole personal life to a file on an I-phone, but he will gasp and sputter and cross his arms in defiance if those same number crunchers warn him that our collective actions harm the environment, commit chaos to the climate or barter momentary comforts for the future generations of all living beings.

I sometimes wonder what motivates scientists and number crunchers to seek the truth when no one is listening. I marvel at their faith in humanity. A strange faith that people will act on what they say.

What I find really disturbing is that they are beginning to give up.

Try and imagine a world where the smart people aren’t figuring shit out for us.


  1. Try and imagine a world where the smart people aren’t figuring shit out for us.
    That would be the world of politics and, unfortunately, we don't have to imagine it, we are living it.

  2. true you are Brite. that fact kills me daily, but your occasional (your posts)comments reliven me

  3. "I am more consumed with my cramped seat, not designed for Nordic descended folk"

    Speaking as one of those Nordic descended folk, I can 100% agree with this statement. Wonder if we would have had the same experience on say, SAS.. My way of getting around this, is to book aisle seats and therefore spend half my flight tripping the stewards over . :)

  4. All right, I just popped in and can't remember from where, but you're singing all twelve verses of my song. You're not going to stop, are you?