It All Adds Up

It all comes down to the numbers - at least it does according to Dr. Ric Crossman. You’d be amazed at what can be explained by fractions, decimals, percentages and statistics; let Dr. Ric guide you…

It all comes down to George, and to Gene.  And if your mind leapt immediately to Lucas and Roddenberry then, well, you might be in for a surprise. 

You may not have heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it's fairly important to what comes next, so I'll lay it out for you. With apologies ahead of time for simplifying it to the point of butchery, essentially the argument runs as follows: it is impossible for a human being to comprehend an idea for which they lack the words to describe. 

George Orwell, it seems fair to say, believed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis entirely. In fact, I think his belief in it terrified him. How else could we explain the chlorinated, frictionless horror of 1984's Newspeak?  Why struggle to eliminate freedom fighters, he reasoned, when one can simply eliminate the very concept of freedom? 

In contrast, Gene Wolfe offered a rebuttal to Sapir-Whorf in The Citadel Of The Autarch, in which the dogmatic refusal of the Acisan culture to speak any words not directly quoted from their religious texts proved no barrier to the expression of ideas, since one of his listeners possessed sufficient imagination to operate as an effective translator. 

Perhaps though, George and Gene were never really disagreeing at all. Perhaps Wilson fulfilled the same role in 1984 as the female soldier does in Citadel…, albeit with very different results. There is a lesson to be learned here: if something is sufficiently important, then either you need the language to comprehend it, or you need to be on first-name terms with someone who does. Otherwise, Bad Things are liable to happen. 

Statistics, surely, qualifies as overwhelmingly important. All science is important, in its own way and on its own terms, but statistics enjoys a position almost unique in the scientific pantheon (a term I have just made up, but I'm allowed, I'm an expert). The reason is simple: statistics is not simply a scientific discipline in itself, it is the method by which all other scientific fact is deemed to have been proven. 

Statistics, simply put, is the language through which we explain what we know, and what we have yet to learn. Not on an individual level, generally speaking, but as a species,comprehension of statistics is critical to comprehend anything more complex than the bacon sandwich. To speak statistics is to speak science. 

If I sound needlessly dramatic (hardly a hypothesis to dismiss out of hand), then let me ask you a question: have you heard of Thomas Bayes?  I'm guessing for many people the answer will be “no”.  That's entirely understandable. After all, he generally isn't mentioned in mathematical education until A level, or even one's first degree courses. There are millions of people in the world happily going about their lives without knowing who Bayes is, or how multiple fields of human endeavour (modern medicine, for example) are entirely dependant upon his work.   

Nevertheless, a failure to understand that work can have catastrophic consequences. People have been wrongfully imprisoned over failures to adequately grasp the laws of probability born from his ideas. This is a phenomenon known as “Prosecutor's Fallacy”, which I'm sure we'll get around to, but for the moment let's just say that if you're ever turfed out of bed by authority figures clutching what they claim is your DNA strand, you'd better hope like hell that your defense council has been boning up on their Bayesian statistics. Because someoneneeds to understand the way Bayes' brain worked, to have side-stepped the unwelcome appearance of a Sapir-Whorf-shaped hole in your defense strategy, or you just got yourself dragged off to prison for a crime you didn't commit due to a mistake you couldn't perceive. 

That's a very obvious (though hopefully uncommon) example of the importance of understanding statistics, even if you don't plan to touch a maths textbook for the rest of your natural life. There are others. It saves an awful lot of time when working out whether or not the arguments of climate sceptics are misleading, for instance, or the degree to which the latest random morass of consonants, vowels, invective and dog-whistle bigotry masquerading as a tabloid lead story can be described as inaccurate rather than actual malicious dissembling. After all, statistics, much like any other language, is just as easy to lie with as to tell the truth. 

All of which means that being able to understand statistics, directly or otherwise, is often incredibly important and occasionally vital. Beyond its obvious and unquestionably essential nature though, statistics is also fascinating. In fact, sometimes it manages to be both at the same time. That's where I come in. The purpose of this series of articles is twofold.  I shall regularly return to the topic of statistics itself (along with its younger cousin probability) as an end in itself, but I will also be taking the time to apply the aforementioned disciplines to eviscerate lazy thinking and active deception whenever I can (I'm guessing tabloids are going to provide most of the grist for that particular mill, but we shall see). 

So think of me as your Wilson, or your female soldier (though anyone hoping I'll marry them after they tell me a pretty story is liable to be disappointed). I can't promise you'll learn how to speak statistics fluently, but hopefully you'll pick up a few choice phrases, enough to ask for statistical directions or order a statistical postcard and two first-class statistical stamps on Statistics Pier (I'm not sure this analogy is entirely working anymore).   

In other words, find yourself a blank notebook, label the front cover “Statistics to English Dictionary”, and turn to page one. Let's not keep science waiting.