Friday, May 21, 2010

Statistics Is The New Grammar

The title of this blog is from an essay by Clive Thompson and it couldn’t be more true than for the officials elected or appointed to govern.  Often what we see as gridlock in public circles is really the difference between people who can process data and those who can’t.

I’m not sure who first expressed the idiom that literacy is crucial to public life.  If you can’t write, you can’t think but as Thompson explains that is now true of statistical literacy.300px-Long_tail_svg 

Understanding and interpreting data is crucial to solutions for global warming, healthcare, the economy, air pollution, homelessness, mass transit etc.  We see so much gridlock among politicians because they get hung up on principle they can’t see solutions.

Maybe that’s why President Obama so often catches people locked into both sides off guard, because he focuses on pragmatic solutions.

Malcolm Gladwell does a great job of explaining this in his essay “Million Dollar Murray,” about the “power law and the J curve” and perplexing solutions to homelessness, air pollution and police misconduct:

“We can either be true to our principles or we can fix the problems.  We cannot do both.”

He helped me understand why it seems we always go for universal, very costly solutions to things like airport security when he writes, “we believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don't give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality.”

Okay, that’s principle ingrained in each of us, right, left and in the middle, but it is extremely expensive and it prevents us from truly resolving some issues.

Read the essay and see what you think.  Often true solutions to these problems are perplexing as Gladwell writes because while “from an economic perspective they make sense, from a moral perspective they don’t seem fair.”

And as my friend and former Mayor of Durham, NC, Nick Tennyson used to tell me when I’d get hung up on principle…."there’s only room for one person at a time to “stand” on principle.”

No comments: