One of the mixed blessings of the technological age is that we are trained to think in statistics and ratings figures. A computer can measure and quantify large numbers, so, today, almost anything can be ranked, even the trivial. “On a scale of 1- 10, how would rate your last oil change,” a recent questionnaire asked.
Petitions are another form of counting and like polls, they presume to reflect where we stand at any given moment. Fine. But tomorrow, our opinions may change.
Turn the coin over. I wonder how Congress feels about all the polls and petitions they receive? Most folks want some form of gun control. What seems to matter is what the National Rifle Association wants. On the other hand, these surveys have the potential to turn the consumer into a bully? As Josh Dzieza writes in TheVerge.com, they give “entitled jerks” power over workers and can imperil their job security. (“Tech’s risky rating game,” by Josh Dzieza, excerpted in The Week, November 17, 2015. pg. 38)
The assumption behind all this measuring is that the results provide useful information. The assumption is probably wrong. Researchers at the Federal Reserve recently came to the conclusion that “’two-thirds of economic studies cannot be replicated’ suggesting that “the dismal science’ is not very scientific.” (“Economists,” The Week, November 13, 2015, pg. 6) Yet how many sleepless nights does a pensioner experience as his or her retirement portfolio rises and falls based upon spurious measurements?
Besides the speciousness of statistics, we must take into account the mind doing the measuring. Could I trust data on climate change interpreted by a statistician educated at a Louisiana school where the Bible and Creationism are the sum total of the curriculum? (“Only in America,” The Week, November 11, 2015, pg. 6.)
Measurements give us false hope. Not all of NSA’s data base nor those of the Queen’s secret service and France’s Sûretée could have predicted the Charlie Hedbo incident or the Paris attacks of Friday, November 13, 2015. Nothing could have prepared us for the murders in San Bernardino. Let our computers crunch numbers from here to eternity, we’ll learn nothing important about human nature. Nor will those numbers warn us of the next violence incident. We’ll have to learn to live with that ignorance.