Newspaper article Gympie Times, The Qld.

Statistics Can Reflect Reality but Not Restructure It

Newspaper article Gympie Times, The Qld.

Statistics Can Reflect Reality but Not Restructure It

Article excerpt


David Boyle's aThe Sum of Our Discontenta should be compulsory reading for every high school student as a prophylactic against our unhealthy pseudo-scientific application of statistics.

Boyle highlights our societies' mesmerisation by measurement and number.

We have completely lost the capacity to appreciate that what we choose to measure often tells us far more about our social obsessions than the resulting data does about the objective importance of the subjects of our measurement.

Equally, in order for comparative statistics to be meaningful we have to be entirely sure that the items being compared meet the same definition on all occasions they are counted.

Purely by virtue of this criterion, all our measurements of crime, child abuse and sexual deviance are completely misleading and inaccurate.

If we are lucky they may be valid across the span of a decade but they are unlikely to be meaningful over the span of the century.

The rise in street violence has far more to do with redefinition and restructuring of our reporting than with any true increase in offending.

One hundred years ago street violence was simply what the lower classes did to each other on a Saturday night.

The limited availability of police meant they did not record or attend anything they didn't have to.

It was always much easier to bury them than book them.

Snatched bags were considered lost property and one dead hoodlum more or less didn't even count in the newspapers.

Beating children black and blue was considered domestic discipline, as was a good belting to keep the wife in line.

Paedophilia may have been as common among educated males as drunkenness was among the ignorant; it certainly gave a proportion of clergymen a weekday occupation.

We have now revealed, redefined and researched child abuse, domestic violence and street violence to the point of boredom; but measurement has not necessarily told us any more about the causes and effects of these issues.

We understand how to measure what we have defined but not necessarily how to utilise what we have measured.

We may have sacrificed wisdom in our search for knowledge and knowledge in our accumulation of information; discarding all corporal discipline in our frantic search for the perfect childhood, populating every park with paedophiles in the search for child safety and substituting a theology of number for the theory of numbers.

We have forgotten that statistics can reflect reality but not restructure it. Believing we can reduce problems to numbers is now our biggest problem.

The book is also the best expose I have read of what I call the snapshot fallacy of statistics. As any school child should recognise, but sadly probably doesn't because the concept of root words has died along with Dick and Dora, statistics has the same root as static and state. …

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