Thursday, January 26, 2012

the statistical mind

Throughout history, there appear to have been a lot of people who used the sentiment in one way or another so it is hard to nail down one particular 'source.' But since I like the sometimes acid humor of the American writer Mark Twain, and since he did use the idea, I will attribute it to him for the moment:

There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics.
 Yesterday, I went to the local district court, paid fifty bucks, and filed the small-claims paperwork that would address my point of view about a fender-bender accident my son was party to last month. After I had been to the court to get the legal ball rolling, I went to the scene of the accident, took some pictures and then came home. There, I spent some time trying to make clear on paper what had happened and why I disagreed with the insurance company's judgment that my son was at least 20% negligent in the accident. The other driver claims he didn't see my son's car and suspected he was speeding. The other driver had exited from a street that sported a "stop" sign at the intersection with the road my son was driving on. The small claims exercise seeks to recoup something more than $500 (plus court costs) I had to pay in order to get my son's car fixed.

Anyway, I wanted to build as good an argument as I could before the court hearing that is likely in five or six weeks. I wanted it to be clear and as simple as I could make it. And in order to do that, I had to factor in not just my arguments, but also the arguments the other driver might bring to the table.

As I munched and crunched on the subject matter, one of the arguments I thought the other driver might make reference to was the fact that my son is 17. Statistically, and to the delight of insurance companies that use the argument as a means of charging inflated rates, teenagers get into more accidents. And perhaps, I imagined, the other driver might suggest my son was just another reckless teenager -- the kind of person the statistics liked to point to.

And as I considered this possible suggestion or imputation, it occurred to me that I had a perfectly reasonable counterpoint: Statistically, elderly people have slower reflexes and worse sight ... and the driver of the other car is 71. So ... I thought ... if the other party suggested or adduced statistical evidence, I might suggest or adduce similar statistical evidence.

The base line difficulty with a statistical argument is, as anyone with common sense can attest, that statistics don't tell the truth. They are indicators of one body of evidence that many may choose to agree with. But statistics always leave out 'the rest of the story.' There may be many teenagers who, based on accident reports, are reckless drivers. Likewise there may be many elderly drivers who, based on accident reports, are slower on the up-take. But tarring one group or the other with a single statistical brush does not address the truth. Statistics may be interesting and suggestive, but they prove precisely nothing as regards the truth.

Statistics are a lazy man's way of addressing life. If lots and lots of people say so and if evidence is heaped on evidence in support of a particular conclusion, then, the implication is that the truth has been reached. Politics and religion are chock-a-block with such notions. Taking a poll tells the story or describing god in one way or another tells the story ... and because many may agree, well, ahhhhh ... end of story. This is a social convenience that is apparent in the mind as well as among politicians, religious institutions, and courtroom arguments, perhaps.

It is the personal use of such evidence that I think deserves a second look. How much of what anyone considers to be true is based on the numbers of others who may agree? How sensible is this? And centrally, does this agreement have one damned thing to do with the truth?

A million people may say "god is good." Another million say "god is a figment of your imagination." Both can confect long and intricate arguments in support of their positions. Lots of 'proof.' And certainly a broad and well-laid story line can encourage anyone to consider one conclusion or another credible. Nothing wrong with a little encouragement, whether statistical or otherwise. But getting into the habit of relying on the statistical evidence really is an idea that deserves investigation. True, it's cozy and social ... I am a Democrat, I am a Buddhist, I dislike war ... and I can find a statistically significant number of people or a significant body of thought that might agree with me. But does this make anything true? Is it really the place in which a man or woman might reliably hang his or her life's hat?

Statistically, I would say that's a really bad idea. It may be comforting, but it is lazy and, in the end, doomed to failure. Conclusions based on agreement of others may be understandable, but it amounts to a fart in a windstorm. Our statistics are invariably approximate whereas out lives are invariably accurate. Relying on approximations is not nourishing, even as the statistical mind looks to agreement for nourishment and peace. It is not a matter of "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong." It is a matter of what actually works, what actually makes some bedrock sense. Statistics and vast agreement encourage the understanding that there is a conclusion that can be reached and relied on. But there are always loose ends, always exceptions: Sometimes teenage drivers are really very good; sometimes the elderly are excellent behind the wheel; sometimes good ideas are pretty bad; sometimes bad ideas and damned good.

Sometimes ... sometimes.

Whether I win the court case or not is not so much the point, though of course I would like to win back my $500. What is important is not to allow statistical speculation and cozy proof to rule the roost. As a pointer, fine. But the fact is that if I want peace of mind, I will have to do the heavy lifting and address the facts that always throw a spanner in the statistical works.

Where is the peace I seek? Can I rely on for an answer on the others who may fill the statistical halls?

I seriously, seriously doubt it.

What do I say? What experience do I bring to bear? And what, in the end will I do with the whispering, lingering, nagging voice that murmurs ...

Sometimes ... sometimes.

No comments:

Post a Comment