It’s (Not) All in the Numbers

“I don’t ever want to play the part, of a statistic on a government chart.”  That defiant intonation from “Invisible Sun” by The Police probably strikes a chord with the average American. I’m more than a scribbling of ink—I’m more than a sterile, monochrome graph bar—I’m me. And yet the singer, Sting, by accruing the $280-plus million now estimated as his net worth, opted to eschew the profundity of his lyric. As it turns out, earning and spending dollars—especially 280-plus million of them—is a surefire path to becoming a statistic on an ever-ballooning number of government charts.

And those statistics and charts have spread beyond the realm of the ivory-tower wonk or back office cruncher. They’re the cornerstones of headlines and political ads—maudlin music, deep narration (or, in one TV ad, Mitt Romney rasping through America the Beautiful), and the stark, swollen numbers. Ah, the numbers.

Nonpartisan sites like Factcheck.org and Politifact.com are littered with reports of faulty figures, like Indiana Governor Mitch E. Daniels’ claim that “Nearly half of all persons under 30 did not go to work today” (he included full-time students), or Senator Harry M. Reid’s assertion that there was a “loss of eight million jobs during the Bush eight years” (there was certainly a loss, but not “during the Bush eight years”).

In a review of several books on politics and statistics, University of Alberta sociologist Kevin D. Haggerty cites a telling example, drawn from Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best. In the 1980s, reports swirled of 50,000 abducted, “missing children” in America. As big numbers are wont to do, the statistics spawned action—police databases, television programming, PSAs, and more. Unfortunately, the words “missing” (i.e. not momentarily out of sight) and “children” (i.e. not adults) had both been skewed. Subsequent analysis readjusted the total from 50,000 to 70, and the scare passed.

The number 50,000 wouldn’t work today. Thousands are irksome. Millions, for now, are good. Billions are better. And trillions, of course, are best. In a telling number-chase, BarackObama.com claims Mr. Romney would levy $2000 in new taxes from each middle class family. Of course, 2000 is a small number, so the web page displays the nine-figure total of targeted U.S. middle-class families above—in much larger font—with its impressive digit triplets and commas. I wish we could find comfort in the old aphorism, “Statistics are for losers.” But that’s not logically possible. Statistics cannot possibly be reserved for losers. Not when A) everyone is slinging them and B) someone has to win.

And even if the statistics are right, what next? Is their message effective, in a constructive way? Maybe not. When CNN polled for estimates of federal spending on 10 major programs, respondents placed the spending 50 percent above the actual level, an error worth hundreds of billions of hotly debated dollars. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, “In several countries, a large majority of people believed that that actual inflation rate was between 50 percent and 100 percent, while official estimates indicated [inflation] rates between 2 percent and 3 percent.” (That’s a scary gap. At 2-3 percent rates, smart investors buy a few-percent certificate deposit or money market shares. At 50-100 percent rates, they start a cash-for-gold shop.) Mr. Haggerty suggests a core problem, that “citizens are inundated on a daily basis with untold numbers of statistical facts, making it impossible to develop a critical appreciation for all but a few these numbers.”

Two points of caution, however. For one, public ignorance isn’t the real issue. A Platonic team of experts won’t solve our problem. (Who’s experts?—FDR’s or Reagan’s? Bush’s? Obama’s? Ralph Nader’s, maybe, if he has any? Even the numbers-guys can’t agree on much.)  Today, the alleged experts fling numbers more than anyone. And anyway, it was Plato himself who wrote, “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” (Plato, admittedly, had never heard of logistic regression.) Second, anti-intellectualism isn’t the answer either. Numbers and statistics—like the inflation rate discussed above—are still powerful and informative, and they can tell us a lot about the world. It’s merely that they cannot, and should not, tell us whom to vote for in November.

Why not? After all, this election is about budgets and fiscal strategies—about the numbers. But statistics only carry us as far as our ideals propel them. This election is really about fundamentals—about the state, its citizens, and their intersection. Fifteen-plus trillion dollars in debt poses Armageddon to a fiscal hawk, but won’t phase a strong Keynesian. Tax cuts on “millionaires and billionaires,” to borrow the president’s numerical rhetoric, are sound to a conservative and anathema to Mr. Obama. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

We need to emphasize the ideas behind the veil of digits. It’s tempting to long for an apolitical approach, attention only to facts and numbers and statistics. It’s especially tempting in the face of ideologies that seem to have failed us. But numbers are an empty bastion for the wayward. The onus is on us to fill in the ideas and the values, the substance. I just wish I had a good statistic to prove it.

Brian L. Cronin ’15, a crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.

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