The Death of Data

In the midst of convention season, it has become clear that both parties live in a world that none of us can truly recognize. Columnist James Fallows, a former Crimson editor, claims we live in the “post-truth” age of politics.

While upsetting, it is entirely unsurprising that super PACs blatantly disregarded the facts, since their favored candidates can deny any involvement. Yet the parties and even the presidential and vice-presidential candidates themselves have started to publically lie without regard to our political discourse or society as a whole.

Granted, politicians’ distortion of reality is not a new trend. But the de-regulation of campaign finance, escalation of hyper-partisanship, and insatiable public appetite for inflammatory rhetoric have all contributed to an unprecedented disregard for the truth.

Besides honesty and integrity, the irrelevance of truth has particularly severe implications for public policy debates.

Most statistics professors and frustrated Statistics 104 students will tell you that the interpretation of statistical data is an inherently subjective science. Transformations and reinterpretations can create different results from the same data set.

Statistics thus becomes easy to twist in accordance with individual beliefs. Rather than deriving public policy from numerical facts, we have started to derive public policy from pre-existing ideological arguments.

The proliferation of think tanks, policy organizations, and other quantitative-heavy institutions has given rise to a torrent of new research beholden to a specific ideology. Data simply adhere to an existing political narrative rather than providing objective evaluations.

As a result, hyper-partisanship has flourished at the cost of substantive policy debate. We now have partisan conceptions of reality that differ on their most fundamental assertions about the world.

For example, Representative Paul Ryan has recently declared that Barack Obama has doubled the size of government. In reality, no reliable data metric shows a doubling of government under President Obama, or even an increase of more than 10 percent.

Debate, the basis of American governance, can only occur through fundamental agreements about political realities. To substantively debate healthcare, for example, legislators must agree that there is a need for healthcare. However, all of our recent political debates, from the debt ceiling to healthcare reform, have shown two parties so removed from each other that they do not even appear to be debating the same issues.

In theory, policy differences result from differing beliefs on how the government should address a particular issue. It results from a difference of interpretation rather than a difference of construction. Statistics frame these debates by providing the foundation through which legislators can discuss potential solutions.

Yet, data are no longer neutral. Even impartial offices like the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office have come under fire for these underlying tendencies. Academia, one of the few institutions with a mission that explicitly pursues objective truth, constantly faces criticisms of liberal bias.

These destructive accusations have undermined the credibility of statistics as a tool for public policy. Actual policy implications become lost amidst inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation. The entire purpose of these organizations disappears, and data no longer aid debate.

We have entered the age of post-modernity in American politics. Established truths no longer appear relevant. In the face of new evidence, we plug our ears and start shouting accusations in order to drown out the cognitive dissonance.

In this way, we have entered a world of multiple political realities, fortified by the politicization of statistics. To refocus the political debate and create a functioning government, we must re-align these realities and, in doing so, understand the credibility of contrary data.

Raul P. Quintana ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

Tags