Monthly Archives: May 2017

Numbers Lie

I was thinking this morning about the proverb “numbers don’t lie”, and how taken for granted it is, when I realized that there are at least two problems with it. First, it reflects our own individualism and efficiency driven culture, and second, there are times where the numbers themselves may not lie, but where a lie is certainly helped by a few numbers.

Regarding our efficiency driven and individualist culture, I think this proverb is essentially glorifies logical positivism, perhaps best summarized in “show me the money”, or perhaps “show me the data”. If I see data proving the point, I’m sold; if not, I’m not. There are lots of kinds of arguments out there, an lots of different kinds of authorities. Data is only one. In some places, a logical argument (as much as I love them!) is not as trustworthy as a person who says such is true. Think about it, if you didn’t trust your own ability to make logical leaps, but you had a very close-knit social/family network, it wouldn’t make sense to trust the argument over the person. Which makes sense of why many Americans don’t trust others so much as data we can see ourselves.

Or do we? It seems that generation Facebook (I think that’s the one after generation Y) is trusting people over data much more than I am personally comfortable with. I mean this in two senses: first, likes are cited as some kind of evidence that things are true. When did that begin to be true? I thought  “40 million Americans can’t be wrong” was always said tongue in cheek, but that seems precisely what is being said these days: more likes = more likely true.

The other way I mean that people are trusting people over data is closely akin to tribalism, or perhaps we should just call it zenophobia. The election last year exploded our concept of news, undercutting the credibility of the established news outlets (who were unable to predict the outcome of the election, nor cope with it once the writing was on the wall), but also bringing out lots of fringe media elements. Blogs have always been there (since they were there, anyway), but they didn’t always compete with major news outlets. Now they do. Why? it seems like we are moving from likes establish truth to my kind of likes establish truth. How many times have you seen “If you voted for X, just unfriend me now!” Why would we do this? It is as if the message is “if you don’t agree with me on this one issue, then I don’t care what you think on any issue.” From this follows the principle that for many people, my facebook feed has more people that I trust on it than the established media do. From which follows trust in a facebook feed (full of people who agree with me) over established media (full of people who I don’t agree with).

Anyway, that bit aside, I think we as a culture look to numbers an data to adjudicate issues more than to other kids of arguments or authorities. In fact, even as we look at likes, we have things ranked by the number of likes, not just “somebody liked this”, without saying how many.

But the second way in which numbers lie is more personally interesting to me, since noticing it brings to light more lies we don’t necessarily notice. And bringing to light issues of truth and falsehood is always a good thing (however hard and painful at times). I’m not sure what to call this yet, but I’m thinking of numbers that don’t necessarily mean what we might think at first glance, and or which are used to mean things they don’t mean. Perhaps I should call it statistics, in the sense of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Don’t get me wrong, I think stats are cool, and good when used well, but I think they are often not used well. This might be because they are taken to be very persuasive, according to the cultural bias I mentioned above.

Perhaps one of the clearest ways of seeing this is by looking at couple cultural icons: watches and scales. When I was in college, someone posed the question “would Jesus wear a digital or analog watch?” Some might need to google “analog watch” at this point; that’s OK, this will still be here when you get back. But the point was that how we look at time has an impact on how we live, and what kind of watch we wear at least indicates (if not impacts, as well) how we think about time. When you look at an analog watch, you might be late in 1-3 minutes, but on a digital watch you know exactly how many.  You might also know how many seconds are left. Have you ever found yourself working on something with another appointment or meeting coming up, and you look at the time and say, “I can keep working on this for another couple minutes”? Why do we do that? Why do we need to squeeze every ounce of time out of whatever we’re doing, whether it’s work, play, or relaxation? Why cannot we allow ourselves a few minutes unspoken-for, wherein we might relax and reflect between activities?

Our analytic view of time has broader than personal implications. I noticed as a child, that you could tell time based on the television. Shows change on the hour, and each hour goes from a lower commercials to content ratio, to a greater commercials to content ratio. Sometimes I can feel the last fifteen minutes of an hour approach by the unceasing and increasing barrage of commercials, as I wait for that one news segment I wanted to see, or to find out whodunit. I’m sure there are economic pressures that make this happen, including organization of time (see above, again), but why is it that we can’t make a TV program (for news or entertainment) take the amount of time it needs to do it’s job, then end? If it only needs 50 minutes, why does it take a full hour? Alternatively, if another ten minutes really would have done the subject more justice, why is material cut to make it fit?

I think the same applies to speakers, even when not on the air. I know that sermons don’t have determined and absolute endpoints, but they are remarkably consistent for a given venue. And in many churches, there’s a clock running to let the person speaking know how much time he’s taken (and often what’s up next, etc). Now I’m in favor of people not blabbing on, but I think it’s interesting that we have numbers telling us we’re over time, even when we really should keep talking to finish well, and we have numbers telling us we still have more time, even when we really should just sit down and shut up (doing a good chunk of public speaking myself, I’ve done my share of both).

But to show that this isn’t just about time, let’s look at another American icon: scales. If you think about it, why do we step on a scale? Is it to find out if we’re healthy or happy? Or to get a number that we can compare with others or some ideal? I loved what a nurse said to us just before James was born: “I go to the doctor and he says I’m overweight. No duh!” I think when we weigh too much, we know; we don’t need those numbers making those judgments. “You’re fat.” “You’re undisciplined.” “You’re unhealthy.” “No one likes you.” Or are you saying your scale doesn’t say those things? I’m not saying that those things are never true of anyone, but the numbers seem to add an extra force weighing down on us, when we already feel the condemnation and shame that comes with knowing we weigh more than we should.

On the other hand, I wonder where anorexia would be without scales. I know it’s often an image thing, either in a mirror or in the head, but I can’t help but imagine some people’s scales say “wow, you’re healthy!”, “wow, you’re disciplined!”, and “hey there, beautiful”, when maybe they shouldn’t.

Anyway, as with many subtle lies, the more we know, the freer we can become. As our Lord and master said, the truth will set us free (John 8:32). I know that I’m fat, and that I’m often late, and I know that both of those have roots in my own self-discipline. But none of that makes me a horrible person, nor takes away the image of God in me. None of it separates me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). None of that allows condemnation to remain on me (Rom 8:1).  But all that only works if we see that we trust numbers more than people (or other things that might reflect the truth better), and perhaps in some critical ways that we shouldn’t.