Something from Beaver that’s pretty related to our current society, given the funny statistics we’ve been seeing for the past years on things like unemployment or inflation rates:
Sanity is not statistical.
George Orwell wrote those words in 1984. Back then, the meaning of this phrase was that it does not matter how many people believe in the truth; the truth remains the truth, regardless. However, Orwell had something to say about statistics in that same book:
But actually, he thought as he re-adjusted the Ministry of Plenty’s figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at one-hundred-and forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than one-hundred-and-forty-five millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot. And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.
His point here, simply put, was that one should be wary of statistics. And he was right. Statistics released by any governing body, and especially those released by interest groups, should be viewed with a strong dose of suspicion.
Statistics are how reality is manipulated. Statistics are how governments and interest groups build narratives. Statistics are how they can make you say that black is white. Statistics are the embodiment of lies wearing a fresh suit of legitimacy.
This may seem preposterous to some, but a mere questioning quickly shows the truth of it. How do you know statistics are truthful? Because a specific person or organization said them? Why does that make them true? Are you of those who think “You think people would just do that? Tell lies?” Well let me tell you, they do. People who want power over you have a vested interest in lying to you, in concealing the truth, in keeping you misinformed. The less you know, the better. Or rather, the more what you know is in line with what they want you to know, the better.
Of course, this does not mean all statistics are lies. In fact, it’s why so many statistics exist; they bury the relevant statistics in a mountain of useless ones, and the relevant ones are the falsified ones. That way, they can keep an air of reliability while lying when it matters to them. Or better yet, they won’t be lying, merely misleading. This is why, as an example, inflation rates seem to remain fairly equal to wages in the western world while the price of everything from housing to food has skyrocketed in the last fifteen years. If someone points out this fallacy, the ones peddling this bullshit will claim that’s because the price of certain goods isn’t taken into account because “they vary too much”.
All important statistics are either likewise falsified in such a way by playing with semantics or presentation, or they’re outright fabricated.
Does this mean statistics are pointless? Of course not! A governing body has great use for them, both to understand what decisions need to be taken and whether they’re efficient or not. Crime rate statistics are useful to know whether you need better equipped police forces and where. Birthrates are important so you know how many schools you need, how much time your population must spend parenting, to know if measures need to be taken to encourage procreation. Even a very limited and libertarian government must need statistics to know whether its army is efficient or if there’s a health issue in their nation.
Likewise, how acceptable is it to falsify statistics? I’ve spoken of propaganda before, how it is needed to simplify an issue down to a palatable level for the populace which has concerns other than grander political schemes. However, one of my points then is that propaganda must not lie. It may simplify a lot, it may dodge more profound aspects of a debate, but in the end it must tell the truth, otherwise it risks being unveiled as a lie, causing a loss of trust from the population and a great loss of effectiveness for future propaganda campaigns. So, statistics released by a responsible government should neither be misleading or false.
And so remember: Question, question, question. For if half the population of your nation goes barefoot, you should definitely question your ability to produce shoes.
One thought on “Beaver transcript – On Statistics”
Nice, insightful post. I always thought that whilst Orwell made everything seem much worse than it really is for dramatic effect, advertising, government and the general “real world” makes everything seem a whole lot glossier and nice than it really is. I estimate the reality to be somewhere in between the two