Statistics_wk2 - 6 have to create them Reality is...

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6 THINKING ABOUT SOCIAL STATISTICS The Critical Approach There are cultures in which people believe that some objects have magical powers; anthropologists call these objects fetishes. In our society, statistics are a sort of fetish. We tend to regard sta- tistics as though they are magical, as though they are more than mere numbers. We treat them as powerful representations of the truth; we act as though they distill the complexity and confusion of reality into simple facts. We use statistics to convert compli- cated social problems into more easily understood estimates, percentages, and rates. Statistics direct our concern; they show us what we ought to worry about and how much we ought to worry. In a sense, the social problem becomes the statistic and, because we treat statistics as true and incontrovertible, they achieve a kind of fetishlike, magical control over how we view social problems. We think of statistics as facts that we discover, not as numbers we create. But, of course, statistics do not exist independently; people 160 have to create them. Reality is complicated, and every statistic is someone's summary, a simplification of that complexity. Every statistic must be created, and the process of creation always involves choices that affect the resulting number and therefore affect what we understand after the figures summarize and sim- plify the problem. People who create statistics must choose definitions-they must define what it is they want to count- and they must choose their methods-the ways they will go about their counting. Those choices shape every good statistic, and every bad one. Bad statistics simplify reality in ways that distort our understanding, while good statistics minimize that distortion. No statistic is perfect, but some are less imperfect than others. Good or bad, every statistic reflects its creators' choices. This book offers some guidelines for thinking critically about social statistics. It identifies some common problems with social statistics and illustrates them with specific examples. It is often easier to understand a particular example than to understand and recognize the general problem or principle that the example illustrates. Still, I hope that, having read this book, you have become more familiar with some of the most common flaws that bedevil social statistics: that you can ask some basic questions about a statistic's origins (definition, measurement, sampling, and the other issues covered in chapter 2); that you are familiar with some of the ways statistics can be mangled (chapter 3); that you understand the risks of inappropriate comparisons (chapter 4); and that you can do more than simply throw up your hands when confronted with a debate featuring competing statistics THINKING ABOUT SOCIAL STATISTICS \ 161
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(chapter 5). But a short book like this one cannot hope to offer a comprehensive list of statistical errors. In order to interpret statistics, we need more than a checklist
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Statistics_wk2 - 6 have to create them Reality is...

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