Something something lies and statistics

Have a read: Spreadsheets are people too: statistics and reality. I quite like this blog post.* I see this issue come up time and again in political discussions, and it usually boils down to a “feels vs reals” kind of debate, or perhaps a subsection of the Two Cultures question. Like Professor Portes, I think that there is a lot of unnecessary and misguided antagonism between the stats and anti-stats crowd.

As someone who is, broadly speaking, found on the left side of politics, I’m sadly used to political bedfellows of the anti-stats persuasion. This doesn’t mean a literal hostility to statistics or science and maths more broadly; in fact, I’d say that many of these people would say they like science very much. The anti-stats attitude is something most easily seen in the midst of debate; for some, making an argument based in ethics or morality is more important than making a case using empirical tools. When this view meets opposition from the stats crowd, things can deteriorate fast.

I can’t help but think of my time spent in internet forums and Facebook groups that are focused on discussion between people of different political beliefs. These are weird little microcosms where real-world political dynamics are replicated, amplified, and played out in often predictable fashion. Often it seemed like the lefties showed up prepared to have debates centred on ethics and morality and expecting certain axioms of theirs to go unchallenged, while a certain set of the right/libertarian crew seemed to have piles of links and papers ready to go at all times on most topics (of varying quality). That Stefan Molyneux catchphrase, “not an argument”, is instructive here. In these spaces, arguments based on non-empirical foundations (for lack of a better term) were perceived as weak and illegitimate – not “real” arguments – whereas a position backed up with statistics and other scientific evidence was considered respectable.

I see interesting parallels here with wider cultural tensions between the hard sciences and humanities. Serious work is conducted using the scientific method; expendable, even indulgent work is done by those who spend their time, say, pouring through old poetry books, or theorising about gender. So goes one popular line of thought.

I’ve noticed this dynamic in debates online and in real life. I’ve tried to explain it to myself and ended up frustrated. Surely it’s problematic to view all this in a framework where left-wing politics is grouped with the humanities and right-wing politics is grouped with the hard sciences and they’re all fighting in some grand battle, but that seems to be what I’m implying. To help it all make sense I ended up using Nietzsche in a slightly spurious way, or at least employ/bastardise some of his ideas in ways perhaps not quite intended by him. I’m certainly no scholar of his work, but I’ve found his concept of master-slave morality to be useful in trying to make sense of why we see particular divides along political and cultural lines.

I see parts of the political left as beholden to a kind of slave morality which manifests in various ways including shaping the way that they argue. Whipping out a spreadsheet isn’t nearly as meaningful to some as a solid argument based in political philosophy, or something derived from an ethical framework, or testimony from lived experience. Further, arguing in the same way as their political opponents is uncomfortable; not only are they perhaps not well-versed in these techniques, but the act of simply adopting them seems like a tacit acknowledgement that their opponents’ tools of argument are effective – effective enough to want to copy and use right back at them. This is a concession that’s far too dangerous to make in a situation where gaining and holding on to points of legitimacy is paramount.

Many are reluctant to buy into a view that they perceive to be cold and sanitised. They doubt that graphs and numbers can give a true picture of people’s lives, solve the problems facing them, and ultimately provide justice. Perhaps they’ve seen these tools employed to do the opposite of that. The picture of, say, a heartless, hyper-rational government cutting welfare benefits based on advice from a wonkish grey paper is a powerful one (and it’s certainly not based on total fantasy).

So, the master’s tools can only be used for his own ends; the slave feels compelled to reject them and use his own. This is an enormous mistake for the political left to make. We must utilise a range of tactics in our political battles and avoid a mindset which prompts us to view the use of particular tools as a concession to our opponents. Perhaps a hackneyed point, but: statistics can be used to tell a range of stories, and it’s impossible to challenge or confirm these stories without knowing how to speak the language they’re told in.

Numbers are not a neoliberal conspiracy (to paraphrase a great tweet I saw recently and now can’t find). Those on the left are unwise to dismiss an indispensable source of information about the world. Of course, this is a complex issue with more dimensions than what I’ve touched on: consider how different priorities and ideological paradigms become popular, why certain research gets funding, how the concept of expertise is built and maintained, or why evidence for particular things might be pushed by powerful voices. Just… like I said, not everything is a conspiracy, and using statistics doesn’t make us heartless or cold or legitimise political opponents. It helps us understand the reality of our world in different and powerful ways.


*Though it’s worth highlighting the section about “spreadsheet-driven policy” on poverty: I take issue with this approach for particular (socialist) reasons that I’d like to discuss more in another post.