Monday, March 16, 2009

Statistics in modern society

Most people know about Disraeli’s comment, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics”, but few understand how the application of statistics has affected our lives or how it developed and evolved. We sense it when everything sort of fits everyone, but doesn’t precisely fit anyone.

Many years ago, I monitored development of a housing estate for low-income residents. Planners knew who qualified as residents beforehand because of the criteria so they did a survey to determine the desires and expectations for all residents. After people had lived there for a while a second survey sought their judgment. The response was “It’s alright, but…” It was a predicable outcome because the planners designed for the average. Chances of any individual requests being included were very small. In any population there is a wide range of individuals, but modern society only accommodates the majority near the middle, that is within one standard deviation of the average.

Application of statistics to all elements of our lives is an outgrowth of what is generally called logical positivism. Wikipedia defines it as, “a school of philosophy that combines ”empiricism, the idea that observational evidence is indispensable for knowledge of the world, with a version of rationalism incorporating mathematical and logico-linguistic constructs and deductions in epistemology.” In simple terms this means that if you can’t quantify something it doesn’t exist. It makes mathematics and its practical application, statistics, paramount. Ludwig Wittgenstein conceived the idea at the turn of the 20th century. Wikipedia notes, “Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in nearly every field of the humanities and social sciences, yet there are widely diverging interpretations of his thought.” Interpretations may diverge but the influence dominates our world and is at the center of why we have lost our way. The dominance is in the pure logical analysis of life and society.

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