Statistics

I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.

Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.

What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.

One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.

Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.

Over to you.

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7 thoughts on “Statistics”

  1. Sadly I think your confidence in the appropriate use of statistics by ‘professional statisticians’ is misplaced. Before I retired I designed and taught statistics courses, mainly for psychologists. There is now a reproducibility crisis in the social sciences generally and problems with statistics is at the root of much of it. For example, many apparently solid findings cannot be reproduced because the original studies had tiny effect sizes at best! It has severely dented confidence in the social sciences. If you enjoy statistics you might want to amuse yourself by looking up such naughty statistical techniques as p-hacking and data dredging. And those are just the honest mistakes…

    • An honest man! Thank you for your contribution. I suspect you may not know me well enough to have detected the touch of irony in my comments about professional statisticians, but others will, especially if they have read my comment on our FB page, https://www.facebook.com/benedictinenuns, under the link to this post. (I’ll now be chased by dozens of outraged statisticians, demanding I retract my slurs on them.) The problem of (non)reproducibility is one that crops up again and again in many different experiments/arguments that are too often unthinkingly regarded as irrefutably ‘evidence-based’ when they are not. Our resident biochemist regularly regales me with her views on the latest dubious claim that she thinks inadequately peer-reviewed.

  2. I have just discovered your blog. I grew up in a convent with nuns. Nuns in my time were concerned with beauty and creativity….embroidery, gardens , botany,music, poetry, literature art, history and languages. Of course I did not appreciate the wealth of that experience at the time but I do now. Sadly with a changing world it seems that Catholic education has changed and so too have nuns.I suppose it is inevitable that the Church become more worldly and in touch but in doing so I think we have lost a lot. I miss my old nuns and I would like to thank them for making me a poet and keeping my head in the clouds:)

    • How lovely that you should have such positive memories of those who taught you! I am surprised by some of your remarks, however, and would love to know what lies behind them. I can’t speak for Religious Sisters, who are the kind of religious who teach, but I do know a little about nuns, being one myself, i.e. what some people call cloistered and others enclosed. I don’t think nuns today are more worldly, if you mean by that that we are less committed to our vocation; but we don’t live in a little bubble untroubled by all the things that everyone else has to deal with (death and taxes being not the least of them). In fact, given the hostility of society to religion in general and the financial and other pressures communities are often under, I am in awe of the way in which many continue to live lives of great dedication and generous service. I have met nuns I think are truly holy, and they are holy because of the way in which they have responded to grace. As to some of the other matters you mention, I don’t think there is any less interest in the arts or sciences in the cloister than there was when I was young. Most of the nuns I know are highly educated and have more than one string to their bow. I mentioned to a previous commenter that one of our community is a biochemist by training, and she brings a special richness and insight to community life. She is also an excellent singer, which means she contributes a unique gift to our celebration of the Divine Office. Even in this blog you’ll find entries on poetry, liturgy, history, art, fine printing, scripture and many other subjects. However regretful you may feel about the past, do be encouraged. A head in the clouds, feet on the earth and a heart big enough to embrace both, maybe that’s what to aim for.

  3. I’ve often heard people quote statistics as a one-sided fact, as with the figures concerned with what the UK has contributed to the EU. Yet no one ever mentions that for every pound we contribute, we get £10 back!

    Well, for now, anyway…

  4. Statistics and statistical analyses can be wonderful tools in the hands of those who know what you can and can’t do with them. Once they get out into the wild though, they can be used for all sorts of things for which they were never intended and aren’t very good at…

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