Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Up to Our Ass in Alligators

If you have heard this old joke please forgive me for repeating it. It does make a point.

A drunk is sitting at the bar. He wants to have a conversation with the bartender. He says, “Did you know that statistics show that the average alligator lays hundreds of eggs a year.” The bartender ignores him. But when he comes near again the drunk says, “Statistics tell us that of those hundreds of eggs only a small percentage ever hatch.” Again the bartender ignores him. At his next opportunity the drunk says, ”Statistics show that of those eggs that do hatch only a few baby alligators actually survive.”

The bartender, exasperated, says, “Who cares about statistics?”

The drunk, irate about being ignored, says, “I’ll have you know if it wasn’t for statistics we’d all be up to our ass in alligators!”

Dumb joke, of course, but I think it raises an interesting question about the operation of the U.S. Government (or perhaps its non operation). For example, if you try to follow what is happening in Wisconsin you can easily get completely lost in statistics. One poll or another shows the public is opposed to Governor Walker 42% to 31%. In the 18-29 age-group it is 46% to 13%. Among non-whites it is 51% to 19%. These numbers seem to have nothing to do with Walker’s continuing attempt to do away with collective bargaining. A national poll indicates that 60% favor retaining bargaining rights whereas only 33% do not. This, too, seems not to influence Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans. Somewhere else it is claimed that public employees make $1,800 per year more than private sector employees, but another study shows they make 4% less when proper comparisons are made. Walker wants public employees to pay more for their pensions whereas others argue that as they already pay 100% that would be ridiculous.

More often than not the various claimants do not say where their information (statistics) come from. Some claim that public employees are an “elite” because they make more than private sector workers. Others state vehemently this is not true and others argue public employees obviously make less. Then there are different claims about the popularity of President Obama with different polls showing different results. And both sides are fond of saying, “The American People” believe so-and-so, but never cite any statistics to bear out their claims. Obviously different polls can give different results depending upon the population being polled, the nature of the questions, and so on. But this means the statistics that are produced are equally subject to distortion and falsification. “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics,” a statement sometimes attributed to Mark Twain. Twain himself attributed it to Disraeli. According to Wikopedia it was first said to Leonard H. Courtney (I don’t know who he was). Anyway, it is obviously the case that statistics can be used to make all kinds of judgments, depending upon who is using them and for what purpose.

What I find most disturbing about this is apparently there is no overriding authority, no ultimate or definitive answer. For example, even when the National Budget authority says something will result in saving money, there are those who simply refuse to believe it. Similarly, and more importantly, when the overwhelming majority of scientists from all over the world say global warming is real and also partly man-made, there are those who refuse to accept that as true. And what are we to make of the fact that 51% of Republican voters apparently do not believe President Obama is an American citizen? How can we possibly argue that statistics don’t lie? And how can a government deal with crucial issues of all kinds when there is no agreement on even the facts of most basic and serious issues?

Although we use statistics constantly about most everything they, themselves, do not have authority. People are free to disavow them no matter what they claim to prove. Roe vs Wade has been the law of the land for quite a long time, and statistically it seems to be true that a majority of Americans believe in choice, but this doesn’t matter to anti-abortion activists who continue to disrupt abortion clinics and even murder doctors who perform abortions. Statistically, we knew for years there was a correlation between smoking, lung cancer, and other health problems, but the tobacco industry still exists and makes a profit year after year. We cite statistical evidence for all kinds of things but many people remain totally unconvinced. So why bother with statistics? Statistics, being amoral, cannot indicate what is right and wrong, proper or improper, useful or useless, or true or false. People do not hold their beliefs based upon statistics, but, rather, on values they have acquired in the process of their enculturation and socialization (or on completely senseless prejudices they may have somehow acquired).

So how does anyone know what to believe? In my case I tend to believe what liberal sources tell me. This is not because of statistics but, rather, because I know Republicans routinely lie. Democrats lie also, but in my opinion nowhere near as egregiously or consistently as Republicans. After the eight nightmare years of the Bush/Cheney administration, when an honest statement was as rare as a flying pig, I have come to seriously distrust Republicans. I distrust all politicians, it is true, but I distrust Democrats less than Republicans. I guess the last politician who supposedly told the truth was George Washington, and we know now that even the cherry tree story was a lie. I fear it is true, we are up to our ass in alligators, and I have no idea what to do about it.

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