Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The UK census: in rationalistic, secular modernity numbers mean nothing at all

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I have just been reading some of the summary data released from the 2011 UK census.

The picture it paints is objectively terrifying; yet essentially nobody has taken any notice, and nobody will take any notice - the whole things just provides a couple of low-ranking 'talking points' for a couple of days in 'the news'.

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I am not going to try and summarize the data, nor highlight anything in particular; but the 2011 census was bad news all round; very bad news indeed: it screams unsustainable. It declares not just the death of Britain but that this has already happened.

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For me there were no surprises - yet I still find it shocking to consider the numbers, to consider the implications, to consider the complete and total and absolute incomprehension of these implications in... well pretty much everybody in the UK, so far as I can tell.

In a rational world, such as modern Britain imagines itself to be, data like this would evoke a seismic change in the whole strategy of the nation; except of course that numbers like this could not have happened if it were not for dishonesty and wicked intentions on a scale that would have beggared the belief of earlier generations.

But it is clear that people simply don't understand numbers. Numbers mean nothing to them.

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I am not an adept mathematician - I have above average ability, for sure; but distinctly less above average than in most subjects.

Yet I understand the meaning of numbers as they apply to life in a way that is clearly very rare indeed among human beings - in this sense I am a 'natural' statistician.

This emerged around the period when I was a lecturer in epidemiology (the statistics of disease); I spent most of the time trying to explain what numbers did and didn't mean. Not as a matter of my opinion, but simply trying to translate what the results of studies implied

Or in most cases did not apply - the striking thing about almost all epidemiological studies is that they were worthless, yet interpreted as meaningful, hence much worse than nothing. For example the vast majority of randomized controlled trials of drugs were not just worthless with respect to clinical management, but actively (indeed deliberately) misleading.

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Anyway, in this project of getting people to understand the meaning of numbers, I got nowhere: and this continues.

I am not talking rocket science - I am talking (perhaps mostly) about the meaning of a statistic such as an average.

Yes, just a plain old average - what does it mean?  What are its implications?

Well, it turns out the the meaning of averages is way, way beyond most people - including professional statisticians; for the simple reason that meaning of an average depends on the specific context - and cannot therefore be reduced to a single definition or put onto a protocol.

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Anyway, my point is that exercises such as the Census are truly terrifying revelations of the intractable and bone-headed incomprehension of numbers which is intrinsic to human beings (except for a few freaks, such as myself, who simply do not count - since we cannot communicate with nor convince anybody else - indeed most people find this questions so boring that they cannot even attend for two minutes: literally).

My solution is not, not, not that somehow humans should be educated into an understanding of the implications of numbers - but simply that we should acknowledge that for 99 point something percent of the population numbers mean not just nothing, but worse than nothing - they are dazzled by numbers like worthless sparkly trinkets.

We should (and I mean should in a moral sense) stop collecting numbers, stop publishing numbers, stop pretending to discuss numbers, stop imagining that plans and policies are or ever will be made on the basis of numbers.

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Just stop: and look around us, and observe what is to be observed, and develop our understanding on the basis of personal experience - supplemented by the personal experience of those (few) who are competent and whom we trust.

Forget the Census and all the rest of it;  the Census merely confirms what we could easily see with our own eyes; yet the Census displaces what we see with our own eyes - and in the end we see nothing at all.

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