Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ouch, that statistic just bit me!

Guns don't kill people, people kill people, is one of the key retorts from the gun lobby in America, and one with which I agree. While reading Daniel Gross' When sweet statistics clash with a sour mood in the NYTimes a paraphrasing of the above retort came to mind. Statistics don't mislead people, people mislead people.

But wait, you might be thinking, didn't Mark Twain (Benjamin Disraeli if you happen to be reading this in the UK) opine that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. Yes they did but I don't think either Disraeli or Twain meant that the statistics themselves are the problem but rather the people who present them. I'd like to go one step further though and add that readers allow themselves to be bamboozled by statistics.

Let me share a memory to highlight what I mean. When I was 12 my father went back to school, first studying Philosophy en route to a Law degree. Thus our home library was soon augmented by the works of Descartes, Berkeley, Locke and Hume, to name a few. As children are wont to do, I emulated my father and read, perhaps tried to read would be a better description, some of these works. My impression was that these books were confusing.

When I began my own studies in Philosophy as an undergraduate a few years later, I was surprised to find that these once confusing works were now understandable. Indeed, each time I have revisited these works I have come to find more and more meaning. Yet the texts were unchanged from the first time I had picked them up. That is, the books themselves weren't confusing. I just didn't have enough background and life experience the first time I picked them up to discern much meaning in them.

The conclusion I drew from this was that meaning is subjective. As Thomas Carlyle put it, In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.

This is not to argue that words don't have an objective meaning, but rather that unless a person acquaints themselves with those meanings, they may confuse themselves. John Locke's notion of each new mind as a "tabula rasa" or "blank slate" comes to mind.

I am reminded of this need to fill in the blanks in my head each time I begin to study a new field or era in history. Just recently I began a study of the Middle East and had to slog through quite a few books before I had what I call a Rosetta Stone moment- a sense that I had just found the key to unlock the mysteries hidden in the texts.

From that point on, I wasn't slogging through the texts but reading them with enough background to divine the broader outlines. Names like Selim, Osman, Suleiman, Mohammed, Ali, and Saladin which had once been empty markers in my head began to evoke times, events and effects on further acquaintance.

During my slogging periods I need to keep reminding myself that I need first to crawl before I can walk. I need to know that I don't know to learn. Thus the same sense that might lead a person to say that a book is confusing or a statistic is misleading leads me to say that I need to do further study.

The above is not meant to argue that people don't cherry pick among statistics to paint a picture that fits their view, they do. So do I. Rather I am arguing that each person can, if they choose, educate themselves sufficiently to avoid being permanently confused or misled.

Knowing, for instance, that 23.4% of the CPI measure of US inflation uses owner's equivalent rent of primary residence, rather than the cost of a home or that the employment data assumes some degree of continuity in new business creation and related employment helps in demystifying the gap between the picture these numbers, taken at face value, might suggest and the world of your experience.

This type of due diligence may well have other effects, to wit, one might begin to wonder why the data are presented as they are. This too, it seems to me, is a fruitful avenue of personal research.

We all, thank God, have minds. What we think with them is, at least in part, up to us, for good or for ill. Evolution may well have increased man's capacity to think over the millennia, but evolution won't read the books for you.


tcassette said...

But Dude, more important, where's the NY cheesecake, and with butterscotch sauce? Cheesecake = dharma after all.

As an aside to your thoughts could you be more specific and timely about naming the books you are reading? Your writing reminds me so much of Iain Pears' 'Dream of Scipio.' I keep thinking 'twilight' when I read the both of you. Hell, let's jess go whole hawg and throw widening gyres and centers not holding into it. Am I reading you wrong?

Dude said...

I haven't read Pears but I have read Cicero's "Dream of Scipio." Twilight will depend on the reaction, or, assuming you are who I think you are, the synthesis, yes.

As to my timeliness, it's golf season.