Damned Lies versus Statistics – Brendan Patrick Purdy

Statisticians are aware of the claims that one can lie with statistics and that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. There’s additionally the Stalinist aphorism (truly Kurt Tucholsky’s) that the dying of 1 man is a disaster, whereas the dying of a whole lot of hundreds is a statistic. These are all dangerous sufficient, however just lately in Legislation and Liberty, Richard Gunderman argued that the appliance of statistical fashions to human life is dehumanizing, and that the self-discipline of statistics is tarnished by its founders’ affiliation with racism and eugenics. Gunderman makes an attempt to point out this with a biographical account of three key figures within the historical past of statistics, Francis Galton (1822 – 1911), Karl Pearson (1857 – 1936), and Ronald Fisher (1890 – 1962).

The Cum Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy

 Gunderman falls into the questionable-cause or cum ergo propter hoc fallacy, which is when an individual sees a correlation between two issues, and wrongly assumes that one has precipitated the opposite. On this case, Gunderman has assumed a causal relationship between “being a statistician” and “being a eugenist and racist,” and the logical error lies in believing that the previous causes the latter. Sarcastically, Pearson himself is the one which first explicated this fallacy inside the context of Galton’s work on correlation.

Gunderman does give good mental biographical sketches of this trio of statisticians, though he incorrectly provides Fisher credit score for the t-distribution; this was truly Guinness Brewery’s chemist William Gosset’s contribution. Gosset was on good phrases with each Pearson and Fisher, who have been bitter enemies, and his work on the t-distribution was validated by Pearson, not Fisher although the latter understood its significance whereas the previous didn’t. So far as I’ve been in a position to decide, Gosset himself held no abhorrent views on race and inhabitants management.     

Regrettably, such views of Anglo-Saxon supremacy have been frequent amongst not solely English statisticians, however the British intelligentsia of the time. John Maynard Keynes, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and Virginia Woolf held comparable views. The truth that three English statisticians have been eugenic racists within the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s ought to shock us as little as the invention that three consultant German professors expressed antisemitic opinions in the identical a long time. Cum ergo propter hoc, certainly. 

The Falsum Dilemma Fallacy

Gunderman does admit that whereas sadly Galton and Pearson have been each racists and eugenicists, Fisher’s “views on race have been considerably nuanced.” I’m speculating, however maybe it’s because Fisher, not like the atheists Galton and Pearson, was an Anglican who on some stage understood that his beliefs associated to race and eugenics didn’t align together with his Christian religion. For all the criticism the Catholic Church receives relating to its prohibition of contraception, it’s definitely an anti-racist view: all human life has equal price. In the long run, social Darwinism is essentially eugenic racism, as non-statistician Margaret Sanger epitomizes. Gunderman additionally deserves substantial credit score in that he doesn’t search to cancel these thinkers’ contribution to statistics, arithmetic, and science, regardless of their abhorrent beliefs.

Gunderman concludes his essay by stating that Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy supply unsurpassed insights into humanity with out utilizing statistical evaluation. That is one other logical fallacy: falsum dilemma or false dilemma. That is when solely two choices are provided, though there are extra prospects. The identical fallacy seems within the assertion, “Both you might be in favor of gun management or you assist gun violence.” One can fairly argue that one of many functions of the Second Modification to the USA Structure is to make sure that gun management doesn’t result in gun violence and governmental tyranny. Likewise, it’s a falsum dilemma to set literature and statistics in opposition. Human beings have explored the reality alongside many avenues, not simply these two. 

Gunderman units up a straw man when he means that statisticians view their discipline as the one or finest approach to perceive humanity.

The false dilemma paves the way in which to additional confusion. Gunderman’s illustration is anachronistic since two of those writers wrote earlier than statistics existed as its personal topic of inquiry and the third was contemporaneous with the appearance of statistics. However there’s a deeper situation right here: The aim of literature is just not the identical as that of statistics. If one desires perception into the depth of the human soul, then sure, please learn literature. But when one desires to attract conclusions from scientific knowledge, then the one recourse is statistics. There are myriad purposes of statistics the place it has proved its price as a self-discipline, to say however one: displaying the inhumanity of COVID-19 lockdowns.

The Ignoratio Elenchi Fallacy     

In his closing sentence, Gunderman writes, “Correctly utilized, statistics can enlighten us, however to treat statistics as the very best or solely window on human actuality is to have interaction in an primarily dehumanizing venture with ethical and political penalties that may show nothing wanting disastrous.” After 1,500 or so phrases, I used to be shocked that Gunderman admitted that statistics can have a helpful objective, however this admission was couched in one other casual fallacy. The straw man or ignoratio elenchi fallacy is when one characterizes his opponent’s place in an over-simplified manner, making it straightforward to knock down. Gunderman units up a straw man when he means that statisticians view their discipline as the one or finest approach to perceive humanity. He makes no convincing argument that this was true even for Galton, Pearson, and Fisher, not to mention for statisticians writ massive.

With Gunderman, I concur that we should always critique the misuse of statistics. There are many professional targets inside the science, comparable to utilizing dangerous knowledge, or misapplications of statistical inference. Nonetheless, the unconscionable beliefs of Galton, Pearson, and Fisher will not be amongst them.


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Written by colin

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