From Ancient Greece to the late 19th century, rhetoric played a central role in Western education in training orators, lawyers, counsellors, historians, statesmen, and poets. However the rise of empiricist and positivist thinking marginalized the role of rhetoric in 20th Century university education. Julie Reuben in “The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality” writes about this change as follows:
“In the late nineteenth century intellectuals assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth. They embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between “facts” and “values.” They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that by this standard, moral values could not be validated as “true.” In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only “science” constituted true knowledge.”
Once the positivist idea that knowledge consisted purely of facts and logic became dominant, persuasion became unnecessary. Anyone who knew the facts and applied logic would automatically come to the same conclusion. “Rhetoric” or persuasion was considered to be a means of deception by positivists – we could persuade people only by misrepresenting the facts or by abuse of logic. The foundations of statistics were constructed on the basis of positivist philosophy in the early twentieth century. Great emphasis was put on facts – represented by the numbers. Rhetoric (and values), represented by how the numbers are to be interpreted, was de-emphasized. This led to a tremendous rise in the importance of numbers, and their use as tools of persuasion. The rhetoric of the 20th Century was based on statistics, and data were used to present the facts, without any apparent subjectivity. As the popular saying goes, “you can’t argue with the numbers”.
By the middle of the 20th Century, logical positivism had a spectacular collapse. The idea that the objective and the subjective can be sharply separated was proven to be wrong. For a recent discussion of this, see Hilary Putnam on “The Collapse of Fact/Value Distinction”. Unfortunately, these developments in the philosophy of science have not yet reached the domains of data analysis, which continues to be based on positivist foundations. Rejecting positivism requires re-thinking the disciplines related to data analysis from the foundations. In this paper, we consider just one of the foundational concepts of statistics. The question we will explore is: What is the relationship between the numbers we use (the data) and external reality? The standard conception promoted in statistics is that numbers are FACTS. These are objective measures of external reality, which are the same for all observers. About these numbers there can be no dispute, as all people who go out and measure would come up with the same number. In particular, there is no element of subjectivity, and there are no value judgments, which are built into the numbers we use. Our main goal in this paper is to show that this is not true. Most of the numbers we use in statistical analysis are based on hidden value judgements as well as subjective decisions about relative important of different factors. It would be better to express these judgments openly, so that there could be discussion and debate. However, the positivist philosophy prohibits the use of values so current statistical methodology HIDES these subjective elements. As a result, students of statistics get the impression that statistical methods are entirely objective and data-based. We will show that this is not true, and explain how to uncover value judgments built into apparently objective forms of data analysis.
It is useful to understand statistics as a modern and deadly form of rhetoric. When values are hidden in numbers, it is hard for the audience to extract, analyze, discuss, and dispute them. This is why it has been correctly noted that “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”. The most popular statistics text of the 20th century has the title “How to Lie with Statistics”. In this sequence of posts, we will analyze some aspects of how values are hidden inside apparently objective looking numbers.