Statistics is Not Right-Wing, But It is Elitist
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s a thought-provoking passage from Ian Ayres’ Super Crunchers:
Like me, Ben Polak is passionate about the need to inculcate a basic understanding of statistics in the general public. “We have to get students to learn this stuff,” he says. “We have to get over this view that somehow statistics is illiberal. There is this crazy view out there that statistics are right-wing.” The stories in this book refute the idea that Super Crunching is part of some flattening right-wing conspiracy (or any other ideological hegemony).
Not so fast, Ian. There is a common theme that runs through the stories in Super Crunchers: anti-populism – or to be more positive – elitism. Yes, it is possible for statistics to support a populist view. But if you rely heavily on statistics, you will be forever double-checking whether the popular view is correct, and periodically saying it isn’t. Statistics is anti-populist in the same sense that science is anti-religious: It questions dogmas instead of accepting them on faith. And like Darth Vader, most people find this lack of faith disturbing.
Furthermore, most people cannot and will never be able to use statistics to check their views. If you rely heavily on statistics, you effectively deny the competence of the man in the street to form his own opinions about the major questions of the day.
So what Polak and Ayres call the “crazy view” that statistics undermines popular ideologies is actually true. If we took the message of Super Crunchers to heart, we would lose our respect for the common man and the politicians who pander to him. Of course, if you are as elitist as I am, this is not a bug of Super Crunching, but a feature: As I told my lazy 12th-grade English teacher, “I’ll give you all the respect you deserve.”