My title comes from a review from New York Times journalist Manjit Kumar quoting Mark Twain who wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Actually, Mark Twain was apparently quoting 19th century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, though the true origins of the quote are truly unknown. I suppose one could argue that quotes ought to be minted as the fourth kind of lie, which is problematic for a growing segment of our populations that gets its news from Instagram. In the end, Tom and Dave Chivers’ book How to Read Numbers tactfully and humorously eroded what little remaining faith I had in myself and humanity as a whole.
Of course, I write hyperbolically in part to ease the discomfort this book created – an emotional response to a book about statistics is not an experience I planned on ever having. My discomfort lies in the dystopian society we have collectively cultivated centered on bias. Whether it is the ethnocentric bias of whiteness, which measures normality based on distance from its own perspective, or the bias that white-centered institutions adopt to prefer and promote people of color in order to uphold white supremacy. Statistical bias is a subset of bias, which is a subset of prejudice. We all have prejudices, but the most dangerous prejudices are those which come from places of power. For example, if a poor person is bias toward rich people, the poor person may throw a rock at a rich person’s head causing serious injury. However, if a rich person is biased toward poor people, the rich person may use his wealth and influence to enact policy, limiting access to necessary resources, which poor people need to survive. Furthermore, if a poor person throws a rock a rich person (or any person for that matter) they will likely be charged with assault. However, if a rich person limits poor people’s access to resources, he will likely be rewarded socially and monetarily. This is the basis of capitalism.
It is my persuasion that capitalism is a subset of post-Constantinian Western Christianity, and they are at least inextricably intertwined. So I am sitting with the question, what theological biases/heuristics remain operative within institutionalize churches/educational systems to maintain exclusivity and limit access? How are hermeneutics agreed upon through confirmation bias, or moral stances solidified through what Tom Chivers refers to as the survivorship bias? Theological reflection must include awareness of possible sample bias within homogenous faith communities. For example, do denominations base their stance on homosexuality because of divine decree, or do they based this on prior-held beliefs of the majority, a prime example of a small and biased sample size? Do religious institutions exclude, in one way or another, LGBTQ individuals based on the six bible verses that vaguely address this issue, or has the fruit of such exclusive and harmful doctrine been held up to the light of quantitative research such as the National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2019, which had a sample size of 35,000 American youth.
Ultimately, numbers seem to have power over our narratives. Take for example the commonly quote statistic that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Jessica Shrader wrote for Psychology Today an article title Do Half of All Marriages Really End in Divorce?. In it she writes, “The truth is, the average couple getting married today has more like a 75 percent chance of staying married […] For some, the chance of a divorce is very slim, while for others, the chance of divorce is actually greater than 50 percent—for example, higher-order marriages have a higher divorce rates than we once attributed to all marriages. In other words, if you are entering into a second or third marriage, you face an approximately 75 percent chance of getting divorced, or possibly higher.”  This highly quoted and quippy stat of 50 percent does not take into consideration marriage rank, thus inflating the statistic, making it more shocking and supporting a narrative that is not full true.
Finally, I am considering how statistical bias upholds and legitimizes the web of heuristics that enable System 1 thinking. Regardless of political or theological persuasion, wisdom requires that we shift our gaze to that which we cannot or do not want to see. The philosophy of civil discourse attempts to do this, but in practice often fails to acknowledge inequity and power-differential. There is a certain self-accountability to own our perspective, but also to peek behind the curtain to see what is hidden off stage by our statisticalized narratives.
- Manjit Kumar. (April 10, 2021 Saturday). Wrestling with the damned lies; This is a timely guide to understanding the numbers in the news,. The Times (London). https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:62DD-BGD1-JCBW-N3R4-00000-00&context=1516831