Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Post-Statistics World

A wonderful long form essay by William Davies, "How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next"
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. [...]
In many ways, the contemporary populist attack on “experts” is born out of the same resentment as the attack on elected representatives. In talking of society as a whole, in seeking to govern the economy as a whole, both politicians and technocrats are believed to have “lost touch” with how it feels to be a single citizen in particular.
Some thoughts:

Some clear-cut questions can be adjudicated, purely based on observation, measurement, and statistics. For example, "how far is the sun?", "what is the average life-span of a human?", etc. Other questions, especially those that arise from inherently complex systems, often resist simple interpretation of numbers. These include questions about nutrition, ecology, macroeconomics etc. It is difficult to interpret measurements and facts, without an underlying theory or story.

Such numbers need compelling narratives to hang on. In such cases, a single counter-example doesn't disprove a thesis: a chain smoker who lives to be 100, doesn't disprove the claim that smoking is bad for you. Likewise, good narratives need numbers to ground them (think any pseudo-scientific claim). 

Calculations and stories go together; it is not one or the other. It has to one and the other.