The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.
I find it interesting that there is a rejection of statistics in the general population, but an almost over-reliance among businesses managers.
Managers are often paralyzed in situations bereft of data — they are unable to make decisions unless there is some data to support it. I do think there is a human tendency to construe data to support their cause. It’s kind of a pseudo-intellectualism.
Contrast this with the general population, in which it’s easier to operate simply rejecting statistics outright. Though, to people’s credit, important data are often tied to confusing topics that simply aren’t worth understanding. Once you hear pundits discussing the merits of measures that have been accepted as gospel, it’s easy just to tune it out… “Why should I bother learning the nuances of the unemployment rate? Especially now that the methodology is becoming a partisan issue.”
Either way, I think anyone who works with data can do better to tell stories.
In many ways, the contemporary populist attack on “experts” is born out of the same resentment as the attack on elected representatives. In talking of society as a whole, in seeking to govern the economy as a whole, both politicians and technocrats are believed to have “lost touch” with how it feels to be a single citizen in particular. Both statisticians and politicians have fallen into the trap of “seeing like a state”, to use a phrase from the anarchist political thinker James C Scott. Speaking scientifically about the nation – for instance in terms of macroeconomics – is an insult to those who would prefer to rely on memory and narrative for their sense of nationhood, and are sick of being told that their “imagined community” does not exist.