Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics


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.

  1. Asad, I wish you well in enlightening folk about the proper interpretation of statistics.But please be aware of the following view, which you might be advised to skirt around rather than tackle head-on, unless you really need to.

    The UK GDP and inflation rate estimates generally settle down to be as FACT-like and even TRUE to the appropriate norms as any empirical data gets. Where there is a genuine issue, which all good statisticians (and mathematicians, scientists etc) recognize and even emphasise (given half a chance) is in the INTERPRETATION of those facts. E.g., are they what we should be paying attention to?

    While many (including me) might debate such views at great length, given 1/10 of a chance, from the point of view of WEA pedagogy I think this a distraction from the more important question.

    Whether such statistics as GDP and inlfation are true or not, the key issue is surely what reliance we can put on them, and how else we might form a reasonable opinion about economies? Hopefully you are goping to enlighten us on this, at least. (Hope so!)

  2. The poisions of positivism which I absorbed during my education destroyed my ability to reason clearly, and the process of recovery was slow and painful. The problem is not in inflation statistics, but in the lack of realization of the massive element of subjectivity that goes into the manufacture of all statistics. If this was out there in the open, if we were able to acknowledge the Radical Uncertainty within which we operate, we would have a better chance of understanding the world and coping with it, and perhaps changing it for the better.

    • Econoclast said:

      Asad, thank you for sharing your painful experience. I had my own version. Nearly all my friends for decades were rationalists who constantly spouted the facts versus values stuff. Lonely place to be. One economist who had his head straight on all this was Gunnar Myrdahl.

    • Robert Locke said:

      It is, was, out there in the open, you just had been caught up in an educational system that denied it. I wrote, quoting others, about the shortcomings of econometrics and neoclassical economics when they were being introduced into the New Economic History in the 1960s. That effort failed as was acknowledged by its promoters, e.g. McCloskey, in his/her well know essay (1982) “The Rhetoric of Economics. At 88, (tomorrow) I am weary to have to go back an rehash what we have known all along.

  3. Nadia Hassan said:

    I have observed two common believes of statisticians:
    1. Data and statistics have no hidden value. It is the context that changes the interpretation of a number.
    2. The nature of data guides us about what measures we should use to analyze a fact.
    In above note, you have given a contrary argument to the first point “values are hidden in numbers”. Looking forward more elaborate discussion on these points in upcoming posts.

  4. The failures and confusions or pains relevant reflect just the failure of plutology, or the flaws of economics principles, and furtherly philosophical chaos. Criticism toward positivism, or objectivism unfortunately failed to cause its collapse, only retreat instead. Subjectivity emerged, but has not been integrated. The late 20th century witnessed philosophical silence, void and awkwardness. Now, the grand synthesis is subject to Algorithmic approach, which will lead to a clear methodology of social science, and economics, where positivism, or neutralism will still enjoy its relative usefulness as one of the tactics among various research tools. Nothing is totally objective, just as nothing is totally subjective, but tentatively distinguishing them is technically helpful, we boundedly-rational researchers have to distinguish them from time to time, and have to tolerate the leftover unclearness. Thanks!

    • BLAE – Wow! Again, I am refreshingly impressed by your axiological humanism, or humanistic axiology. I hope this earlier comment portends a truly valid, viable new approach to unifying the basis of oikonomia: the art of living well in the home of humane socio-cultural reality.

  5. ghholtham said:

    What collapsed with logical positivism was not the distinction between facts and values, which is alive and well and likely to remain so. What collapsed was the view that statements of value were no more than statements of personal preference. If saying murder is wrong is no more than saying I don’t like murder, rational discussion of morality becomes almost impossible. Since discussion of moral values is necessary to any civilization the position of the Vienna school of logical positivists was untenable. Value statements have to be admitted as legitimate and justifiable, or otherwise, in terms of more fundamental moral precepts on which there is broad consensus.
    The fact that the set of facts on which someone chooses to focus is influenced by their values seems to have misled Asad Zaman into supposing that elementary facts themselves are changed by values. But old man Hume was right: you can’t derive an “is” from an “ought”.

    • The arguments against positivism (which led to its spectacular collapse) did not come from the fact that it turn moral statements into meaningless statements – these emerged from other considerations, which I have not discussed here, but have discussed elsewhere. The collapse of the fact/value distinction is something quite different. If you would read Hilary Putnam’s essay, you would learn more about the history of philosophical ideas.

    • GHH – Well said! This must be the most slippery if not slimey defects of modern ‘Western’ philosophy, science & psychosocial discourse. Hence, I finally decided to write a book, attempting a cure of our pandemic corruption: “Awareness and Power: Money, credit, value, bioethics & action”
      I think you will be a very good content editor and/or contributor.
      FYI: I find it helpful to remember that the literal meaning of the Chinese word for “corruption” is rotting meat. So, the modern kleptocratic culture of corruption is like a combination of psychosocial gangrene & blood poisoning.
      Do you think the patient can be saved?
      I don’t care. As a cultural exorcist & Soul doctor, I must do my best to try.
      Hence, I sustain quality of life, if not quantity.
      Cheers ~ M

  6. Ken Zimmerman said:

    If truth is communal, then so too are lies. At a minimum, truth is communal in that facts (e.g., 1 + 1 = 2, one’s hair or eye color, who is president of the United States) are interpreted in specific community contexts. At a maximum, truth is communal in that we communally categorize certain ideas as factual (e.g., ideas about childrearing or taste or beauty). Similarly, lies, which rely on fabrication and interpretation are also communal. Lies are forms of intentional manipulation and deception (Arendt 1967, 1972; Bailey 1988, 1991; Barnes 1994; Bok 1979). What, then, is the sociality of lies? Let’s answer this in the context of the world’s currently best-known liar, Donald Trump. Trump’s lies and his relentless dismissal of facts make him seem authentic to his followers. As he proclaims to the world, he is real, unlike the fake, insincere Hillary Clinton. He documents his masculine vitality through a hyperbolic letter from his doctor stating that Mr. Trump’s health is “astonishingly excellent,” “extraordinary,” and that if elected he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” (Blake 2016). He claims that “I alone” can bring change.

    Such aspirational lying creates affiliative truths; that is, US citizens’ responses to Trump are both affective and collective in creating communities of both supporters and protesters. Trump’s lies galvanize moral outrage in (at least) two directions: for some, a moral call for change as a return to a “great” America, but for others, as an outraged response to the racism and misogyny embedded in this call. Contradictions exist near the center of all cultures, and Trump’s rhetoric highlights a great conundrum of US society: who we believe we are as a nation.

    Lies are never neutral. Instead, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1972) argues, they are also calls to action since they are claims to truth. Political lies are acts that create new realities for which contradictory facts need to be eliminated. From World War I through the Vietnam War, Arendt argues that while the premodern political lie hid a known truth, the modern lie seeks to eliminate the historical reality that it denies. Destroyed is thus not only truth but also history, with new certainties inserted in its place as truths. How to combat this? One approach offered is to appeal to truth or facts or history, providing context and argument in a dialogic fashion. This presumes, however, the existence of dialogue, of a civil public discourse that now seems quaint and anachronistic. The 21st century political lie has its own history, which consists of a new global populism and demagoguery, the Internet’s immediacy, and social media’s selection biases and ability to disseminate hate. This is the moment we are in: the time and place where an anthropology of lies might be of great use. There is desperate need for such anthropology. To hopefully help counter the US’ high-octane demagoguery, powered not only by false statements, prejudice, and emotion but also by an authoritarian, egotistical disdain for the truth.

    • Ken, Bravo!!! We are definitely in tune. Thanks for that amazing response.
      I agree, yet suggest a next-gen successor to anthropology, a sociocultural holonomics & humanistic axiology Veblen, Schumacher, Gandhi & Buddha would approve & applaud.
      I initially read Dingo’s and was equally amazed & encouraged. Yet, your mentions of Arendt’s brilliant analyses gives us some unusually helpful ammo for achieving a victory of Truth, if not ecotopia & ongoing Earthly life.
      I hope you will consider reviewing and/or contributing to my current works of bioethical axiology, sociocultural holonomics & ecotopian activism: “Awareness & Power: Money, credit, value, bioethics & action” and “An Ecotopian Manifesto”
      Cheers ~

  7. Dingo said:

    There is something else I think you might want to consider.

    My youngest son was diagnosed with Agenesis of the Corpos Callosum. The reason I am sharing this is because it is my belief that there are two sections of society who we could possibly find more people with this condition than not. Research into this condition has suggested that many in society have this condition without knowing it.

    So what is it? In laymen terms, it means the ability of one side of the brain to communicate with another is impaired. It means, and as my son demonstrates time and time again, the ability of the emotional side of our brain to lie to the analytical side is impaired or otherwise impossible. We nicknamed him Mr Literal by account of the fact that everything he hears he takes in literally, because his emotional side is unable to twist meanings.

    The two sections of society that I believe would contain many people with this condition relatively speaking, are on one hand the very successful people in some field or discipline – this might include very successful wealthy people, very disciplined spiritual, sporting, and the like people. On the other hand would be those people who struggle to conform or embrace the Western ideology or otherwise are constantly questioning it – these might include criminals, homeless, unemployed, poor, but also include writers, thinkers, philosophers who are constantly questioning the motives of society as a whole.

    In between these two groups, are what you might then consider those who accept what they are told and for the most part seem to make up the majority of the middle to lower middle classes. All those rushing to buy toilet paper at the moment based on what they hear on media is a good case in point.

    The reason I believe many of these people could have this condition is because in the first group, success usually means being able to say Yes when others tell you No, and vice versa. Those who succeed in monetary terms are usually the ones who are hard to sell to but find it very easy to sell to others. They are more disciplined than the average person. With the other group, the same logic applies but rather than competing these people go in other directions, some crime, homelessness, welfare etc, others into critical thinking and questioning.

    But why is this important?

    Because, it is assumed by almost all economists, philosophers, thinkers, academics etc, that man has an inherent desire to exchange and work a routine specialized job. The irony is, that those who make this claim are the types least likely to exchange on a regular basis, but rather write books or give speeches etc as a way to earn money. But anyway, whilst exchange and a routine specialized job may be fine or acceptable for many people, the idea is foreign to many, and my son is a good case in point. But it is not the condition of AOCC that makes him adverse to such activities, but rather, it is my contention that the human being in general has never had an inherent desire to exchange or to specialize at all, and that this claim was a fabrication. And that the reason the majority of people do it day in day out is because their brains are from an AOCC perspective, fully developed, and hence can easily lie to itself despite any facts to the contrary. They never question the merits of living a life based on economic pursuits, None of them would ever be able to envision other ways to manage resources other than what is spewed out of political economists mouths.

    Most people then, accept the claims made by education, the so-called experts, business leaders, media etc because emotionally, it is easier than it is to accept factual truths. The emotional brain reacts around 80,000 times faster than the intellect. Most people are swept up by their emotions well before they realize they are, if at all. What they believe to be true is in fact something someone else has said and which is transmitted to the average person through their emotional center, usually based on things like fear, missing out etc. Some of these claims include the claim that the economy is not a zero-sum game and that to contribute to society you must specialize and exchange in economic terms., Yet from a legal perspective it is anything but a non zero-sum game, and all the technological advancements do not change this fact. And so, people go out there day in day out specializing and exchanging under a system they believe is non zero-sum and under the belief that if they just work hard they will succeed, and yet the evidence clearly demonstrates the contrary. Many of us are indeed exceptionally hard workers but are either broke, almost broke, or heavily in debt. It is no co-incidence that 80-90% of businesses ultimately fail, 80-90% of workers will retire with insufficient funds, 80-90% of investors/stock market traders blow their accounts at least 3 times, 80-90% of households are only a month away from bankruptcy if they lose their jobs, and 80-90% of lottery winners end up losing all their winnings. These stats may vary but they are heavily weighted to the fact that the majority of people struggle under a monetary economy despite all the wonderful material technologies and advancements and despite their hard work ethic. No amount of money or politicizing will change this.

    Now for those in the political fields, the economic fields, big business (the wealthy in the world), the legal professions, etc, do you really think these people want all the economic problems of the world to be solved? Of course not, because if they were, then their careers/wealth, and purpose in life no longer exists.

    I have been told many times that no one can change the world, and I am beginning to see that there is a lot of truth to this fact, because, the strength one might perceive many to have in the form of a fully developed brain can in fact be their biggest weakness.

    I think, rather than focusing on all those with developed brains, who can’t in fact be shown anything factual without it being impaired by emotions, it might be easier to focus on those who question the very assumptions the economy rests on. We should be looking to come up with other relationships (like surplus share arrangements) that are not competitive based for these types of people, particularly many of the unemployed, homeless, etc, but also many in the fields of science too, and leave all those who wish to continue to live under the competitive economy and who accept that owning property is a great aim, to continue do so. There is no logical reason in my mind to try to change the majority of people, but better to focus on only those who want to see change, and make the changes exclusive for them. If we all are stuck in the mindset that we can only create change if all of us change, then this is an admission that the current economic system we employ must be zero-sum.

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