“A certain elementary training in statistical method is becoming as necessary for everyone living in this world of today as reading and writing”*…
The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.
Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history. We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how – if at all – we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside…
The ability of statistics to represent the world accurately is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over – and putting democracy in peril. William Davies provides historical context, a clear diagnosis of the problem, and thoughts on a response in his important essay, “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next.”
* H.G. Wells,
As we take note of numbers, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Roger Newland Shepard; he was born on this date in 1929. A cognitive scientist and emeritus professor at Stanford, he has received both the National Medal of Science and the Rumelhart Prize. While his contributions to his field are many, Shepard is probably best known as inventor of multidimensional scaling, a method for representing certain kinds of statistical data in a plane (or in space) with minimal distortion, so that the data can be apprehended by non-specialists.