Lies, damn lies and statistics: moderating the tyranny of numbers

Quoting numbers, whether denominated in dollars, deaths or whatever, has always been a favourite way of adding weight to an argument.

Metrics are gamed in order to increase (or decrease) a given number so as to support an argument, boost a political view, trigger a linked payout or justify a proposed policy or course of action.

The modified metric elevates the case of the proposer above the merely subjective/ rhetorical and lends an ‘objective’ weight to their argument. If, over time, the narrative can be sculpted so that the metric becomes synonymous with something good (or bad), all the better. In this way GDP growth became a proxy for progress – a relation still frequently implied in mainstream discourse.

For those with the requisite level of agency, the rules for the collection of a metric can be changed, often subtly without anyone noticing. Pre-change and post-change numbers can be plotted on the same graph.

The spotlight metric – (i.e. the core metric used at a given time to drive/ justify policy etc) can be changed to suit the convenience of the moment.

The mega-nudge

This traditional art of meretricious metric management has been substantially boosted by the rise of behavioural economics as a ‘discipline’. Nudge units have become super-users for the emerging metrics-scuplting industry. What started as well-intended, often subtle interventions to prompt towards marginal socially-desired behaviour modifications has become a hothouse for heavy handed authoritarian intervention – creating fear as the primary motivating force. Again this is not a new phenomenon, but it has a new face courtesy of social media and the ability of super-digitised communications to facilitate intrusion.

The two ‘industries’ are mutally supporting. As those with power become habituated to nudging the precariat into compliance, they create a series of ‘testimonials’ for the metric-sculpting industry. Big-data collectors and organisers had become used anyway to using data to direct marketing activity; using it to direct the rest of our lives must seem a natural and logical step.

Staying positive

So, how to stay upbeat when agency is hard to come by?

First give yourself permission to be sceptical or hesitant. If you feel like you are being bounced into something or bullied (with or without stats) let it bring out your bloody-minded side. Take your time to decide what you think, and what actions are best for you and yours.

Second, value the subjective. Dont let others gaslight you into devaluing your own lived experience and that of those close to you. We are all subject to confirmation bias so this is not a call to be intransigent in your views come what may. But it is an encouragement to take your time.

Third, keep your personal energy close to you. The longer the chain between you and the sources of goods, services and emotions important to you, the less agency you are likely to have. Preference local and familial connections. Beware neutral professional gatekeepers (including fact checkers).

Fourth, in so far as you have control over your own data, keep that as close to yourself as you can too.

Fifth, indulge yourself in essential shared pleasures. Its a bumpy journey right now, we need to enjoy the ride as it were. (For clarity I mean music, arts, food etc.)

Finally its worth noting that even if metrics can be gamed, just getting environmental or wellbeing measures on political dashboards can be a progressive step and help reshape the prevailing narrative over time.

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Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

3 Replies to “Lies, damn lies and statistics: moderating the tyranny of numbers”

  1. Past the limits to growth, on the way down, because the official narrative and that of the corporations is still growth focused, there are bound to be problems with statistics where truthful figures would show elite failure to meet their stated goals. At the same time disaster capitalism – problems – are a source of lucrative opportunities for corporations if the public can be convinced of the need for a variety of  money making corporate agendas – like taking vaccines. That may require statistics that frighten that appear to show how grim things are….or could become unless a particular agenda is adopted.  At the same time quoted statistics can be useful to to pin blame on the public or particular groups in the public for problems – for example asymptomatic covid infections is a really tiny source of covid transmission but the idea that everyone might be a source of deadly infection is a potent way of keeping up a high level of fear. 

    Statistics are therefore weapons in the hands of the state and the corporations. This is not just a problem during the pandemic but will continue throughout all the crises of the limits to growth and organisations like Feasta would do well to be continually pointing out how they can be misused.  

  2. “Beware neutral professional gatekeepers (including fact checkers).”

    I think this line would be clearer if ‘neutral’ was in quotes.

  3. You’re probably right Caroline. Though genuinely neutral fact checkers can be influenced by the sheer pressure of mainstream media narrrative (all of us are). and so may inadvertently self-censor. But yes it was the ‘bought and paid for’ fact checkers I had in mind.

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