Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics
Roberto Rivera on the Truth About Loving Our Kids
I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a geek. No, I’m not a “carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, [such] as biting off the heads of live chickens.” I mean the contemporary sense of the word: a person whose curiosity and enthusiasms meet with the disapproval of others. My frowned-upon pursuit is statistics. I love baseball partly because the numbers mean something. And it’s not just baseball. You can’t really understand American culture unless you, as they say on Marketplace, do the numbers.
That’s why I’m a sucker for the Statistical Abstract of the United States and why I love browsing through page after page of Census Bureau data. I won’t say that figures never lie, but I will say that they are a lot less misleading than we are. I admit that you can’t reduce life to a mathematical model. However, if I had to choose between the numbers and position papers from interest groups—whether left or right—I’d trust the numbers to provide me with a picture that more closely conforms to reality. That’s because the data from the Census or the Abstract does one thing exceptionally well: It exposes the gap between our rhetoric and our actions.
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Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, and he is also a regular contributor to the web magazine Boundless. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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