“Facts alone are wanted in life”

One of the great inventions of the Enlightenment and capitalism – perhaps one of the lesser-known ones – was statistics. The accumulation of facts, represented by numbers, was taken a mark of progress, along with the presumption that an aggregate number such as a mean could be used to study something inherently variable, including the behaviour of individuals in society. This is the argument of Theodore Porter’s 1986 book . Yes, I’ve been sucked into the history of statistics.

[amazon_image id=”069102409X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900[/amazon_image]

Porter writes: “The pre-numerate age was not entirely deprived of statistical tables, but the great explosion of numbers that made the term ‘statistics’ indispensable occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. The demands it placed on people to classify things so that they could be counted and placed in an appropriate box in some official table, and more generally on the character of the information people need to possess before they feel they understand something, are of the greatest importance.” (p11)

The collection of social statistics was also a tool in the centralization and bureaucratisation of government. Early ‘statists’ hoped to bypass traditional authorities such as church and monarch; but the effect of collecting orderly data on society was to consolidate state power, the book argues. (It is only now that we can think about the potential for citizen statistics.) However, the enthusiasm for statistics was manifested by pragmatic reformers, who “believed that the confusion of politics could be replaced by an orderly reign of facts.” (p27) This is still the dream of technocrats, and still disappointed by every election campaign.

In 19th century Britain, statistical enthusiasm took shape in private societies, principally the Statistical Societies of London (forerunner of the Royal Statistical Society, and with Malthus and Babbage among its founders) and Manchester (still thriving). The book draws an interesting connection between the emerging idea of social laws, statistical regularities unaffected by individual choices, and laissez faire liberalism, which reached its apogee in the 1850s. Government was seen as a hindrance to ‘natural’ social progress, obstructing the course of history toward prosperity and freedom. Interestingly, the idea of statistical regularities in physics, such as James Clerk Maxwell’s work on gases, was borrowed from the observation of social regularities.

And the opponents of statistics (many of them French positivists such as Comte) rejected the key novelty of statistical thinking, the idea that individual unpredictability would cancel out: “Any social science that views the differences among individuals as random, they argued, is irremediably flawed. …One must analyze carefully in order to establish causes and recognize their heterogeneous effects on different parts of the population.” (p152) There were medical opponents too, who said statistical generalizations were useless because they said nothing about the individual patient – something anybody presented with a diagnosis and a population frequency will identify with.

Fascinating. insistence on Facts (“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”) is both political and performative, and not boring at all.

[amazon_image id=”150567817X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Hard Times[/amazon_image]

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2 thoughts on ““Facts alone are wanted in life”

  1. Pingback: “Facts alone are wanted in life” | Homines Economici

  2. There are lies, damned lies and statistics. As someone who has spent too long poring over original census documents and like what done stat’s it is my view that in the structure fastened on to the analysis of these fundamentally there were flaws to the extent of allowing serious misreading of the reality of society and how work and life functioned to a great extent. They are a tool but you need to use the right tools for the job and that may not happen.

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