On statistics

by The Editor

SERIES: Because they are far more objective in nature, statistics have a certain kind of power. That is, they allow those not entirely familiar with a situation to comment on it with authority, even insightfully. Little wonder, then, nationalists don’t like statistics and try to control and manipulate them. Ultimately, however, its a losing battle. Here’s why.

On statistics

By: Gareth van Onselen

1 August 2012

In a world where style and substance are constantly placed at odds with one another, statistics sometimes struggle to earn their proper due. They are a fundamental form of evidence rationality uses to argue its case and while often contested their ability to define a paradigm and aid analysis is immensely powerful, and underappreciated or dismissed at one’s peril.

It is true an overreliance on quantitative information runs the risk of reducing human affairs to a cold and lifeless set of exchanges but, in the other direction, to focus exclusively on qualitative issues is to give preference to randomness and subjectivity. Perhaps more importantly, it is to ignore context and trends over time.

That is the primary value of statistical comparison: it allows one to place an event in its proper perspective, and to differentiate the exception from the rule. It’s no surprise, then, that societies which demonstrate little appreciation for statistics likewise show little appreciation for history, or the lessons one might learn from it. It’s a kind of self-inflicted ignorance.

In turn, there can be implications for one’s moral code: for, if every decision can justify itself, that is a slippery slope indeed, even to open the door to an abuse of power. Without context best practice is reduced to a relative consideration – relative to nothing more than the attitude, nature, even position of the person responsible for it.

Often quantitative analysis produces an answer not to the liking of those asking the question; for attitudes are contemporary and those things that jar with them, a bitter pill to swallow. And yet there the pill sits, staring back at you. Of equal frustration to those set in their ways, is the ability of statistics to disprove a claim based on perception or common cause and unthinkingly accepted as true. Something especially irksome for the lazy and authoritarian alike.

Nationalisms, indeed many fundamentalisms, detest statistics, because they allow ‘outsiders’ to comment insightfully on those things it believes the sole preserve of ‘insiders’. And so it guards them jealously, arguing their production strictly state business. But the truth will out. History has far more patience than any government has ever demonstrated.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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