NUMBERS IN RETREAT
I attended a local meeting the other night convened in response to a county plan to restructure the police department. Speakers on both sides weighed in with their talking points, their remarks liberally sprinkled with numbers and statistics. How many cops would now be out on patrol? How many special police units have been eliminated? Is crime trending higher? At one point this guy in the audience gets up and says, “Forget the numbers: no one believes them anyway.”
That got me thinking that it wasn’t too long ago that numbers seemed authoritative, commanded respect, settled disputes. Arguments and debates formerly advanced with generalizations and impressionistic evidence could gain traction once numbers were brought to bear. Numbers counted: it was powerful stuff. Arguing that a crime wave was underway meant presenting sets of numbers about murder rates, felonies, arrests and prison populations. To demonstrate the war was being won in Viet Nam or later in Afghanistan you introduced enemy casualty figures emphasizing the number of high ranking commanders blasted to bits. For almost any argument in sports – who was the most productive hitter ever – the most valuable player – the most durable performers – statistics came flooding in to support various contenders.
But lately it seems we’ve wised up, come to an understanding of the numbers game, recognized that the old chestnut regarding “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” represents the height of wisdom (as does “figures don’t lie, but liars use figures”). All sides now come armed with numbers, and so, because they’re everywhere, they’ve lost their power to persuade.
We’ve also become aware that numbers reflect predetermined patterns of selection. We’re presented with monthly cost-of-living figures, but then are informed that food and energy prices are excluded because of their volatility. We’re given unemployment numbers, but are told that these exclude people who’ve stopped looking for jobs. We’re inundated by polling numbers which seem to yield hard data, but we also observe how small the sampling and how tendentious often is the wording of the questions. And back to our crime statistics. Numbers are always present, but there’s little discussion about the under reporting of crimes and the deliberate reclassification of many offenses.
It’s clear then that numbers have been overused and misused, and that the public has grown skeptical. Numbers will not, however, go out of fashion, but those deploying them had better realize that they will need to muster other means of persuasion. Otherwise, their number may be up!