government statistics

Misunderstanding the Problem

In “How Statistics Lost Their Power — and Why We Should Fear What Comes Next” (The Guardian, January 19, 2017), William Davies asserts that

statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government….

Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency….

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.

And yada yada yada.

Davies views the world through the lens of the policy-maker, who believes that he can fine-tune the interests of millions of people and arrive at policies that deliver the “greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.” This is nothing more than utilitarianism — the arrogant doling out of other people’s money — which is antithetical to liberty.

Here’s why “populists” are up in arms about statistics: They don’t like to be pushed around, and they can smell b.s. a mile away. Social statistics are malleable things. In the hands of pundits and politicians they are cherry-picked and smoothed and slanted in favor of one-size-fits-all “solutions” to perceived problems. The result usually is that a lot of people get burned by those “solutions.” Take Obamacare, please!

The real solution to most “social” problems isn’t more and better statistics, it’s smaller and less powerful government.

That’s what all the fuss is about, Mr. Davies.

Read on:
The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number?
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Governmental Perversity
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Social Justice vs. Liberty