Dumbers. Like numbers but based on our inability to understand them.

Scottish Policy, UK Policy Jul 11, 2012 Add a comment

 You might be able to find the Higgs Boson using pure mathematics but you’re not going to find a healthy economy. So how about focussing on a credible plan rather than arithmetical parlour games.

The (probable) discovery of the Higgs Boson provides more ammunition to those who argue that mathematics offers the most accurate way humans possess to describe the real world around us. And I agree completely – at the subatomic level and then again at the inter-planetary and inter-galactic levels. It’s the bit in between that causes the problems.

When it comes to matters of human affairs it is fair to say that numbers probably cause more confusion than clarity on many occasions. The is always true – the theoretical contortions of the last decade by the oil industry trying to disprove global warming is a case study in using numbers to prove something that isn’t true rather than trying to describe something that is true. Of course, in reality you can probably trace this back to some prehistoric village where someone hid a stone under the feathers of a chicken so they’d weigh down the scales just that bit more.

But the more that one ideology diverges from the reality of the world around, the more it needs to use numbers to create reality rather than to describe it. And right now the chicken is tethered to boulders so far is reality drifting from what some would like us to believe. Here are four quick examples from recent days:

  • The National Institute for Economic and Social Research is a think tank I’ve never heard of (it tells us it isn’t funded by political parties but doesn’t tell us who it is funded by). It wants us to believe that we’re really out of recession, or would be if it wasn’t for the Queen’s Jubilee. The loss of GDP resulting from the celebrations is all that’s keeping us from being back in the black. This is silly. Presumably this is based on crude indicators like loss of retails sales on Jubilee day. But since it is impossible to work out whether people bought more than they would have the day before or the day after, this is meaningless. Did we just not eat for two days? Measuring the economy on a day-by-day basis makes as much sense as measuring the rain drop by drop. We’re in a prolonged recession. Stop blaming the Queen, or the weather, or the Olympics or whatever quarterly excuse we’re going to get next.
  • Then there’s the UK Government’s evidence that its force-labour workfare training scheme is a resounding success. We know this is a massive success because 30 per cent of participants (it might be 40 – but since the numbers are made up anyway I can’t be bothered going back to check) don’t sign on again for three months. Three months? Is that the length of a successful career these days? Anyway, since there is very little evidence that there is any expansion of jobs, presumably this is just displacement. Who’da thunk it? Offering businesses unpaid labour just dumps other kids out of their jobs? Still though, the stats prove the scheme is working just fine…
  • And thanks to Unison for the next two. First it points out that the merger of the police forces is resulting in  3,200 jobs losses among civilian staff. So that’s the ‘efficiency gain’ we’ve been promised – fewer people doing the jobs. But hold on, that’s not efficiency, that’s reduced capacity. As Audit Scotland has pointed out, mergers are basically a con (not its words). And the only people who seem to profit are financial services. Imagine that. But still, the forecasts prove that everything will be better for all of us so I guess we’ll just have to go along with it.
  • And I don’t think there is much to add to Unison’s demolition of the Taxpayer’s Alliance report on pensions. Suffice to say that unless everyone in the public sector retires at exactly the same time, I don’t think we need to pay much attention to one more assault on the public sector.

Which is to say that despite the statistical efforts to prove otherwise, the public sector is viable, the economy is in a mess, mergers don’t work for anyone apart from consultants and you can’t create jobs through training (well, not for the trainees at least).

Is this really worse than the usual statistical manipulation? I think it probably is. The neoliberal project was based on rock-solid precepts which are one-by-one unrevealing. Surely everyone now knows that unregulated markets tend to catastrophe, that GDP and prosperity are not the same thing and so on. But far from any sign of contrition or – more to the point – some fresh thinking, the right seems content to roll out the same failing policies over and over again, each time tarted up with a barely-credible statistic that suggests all is well.

My conclusion is fairly simple; the longer the right tries to change reality to match its rhetoric rather than changing its rhetoric to match reality, the more it will dig itself into a hole. If it’s medicine doesn’t work, what will it offer us next? Mathematical proof that we’re not really sick at all? Still though, it can keep rattling out data solely designed on the basis that we’re all mathematically (statistically, economically) illiterate. These aren’t numbers, they’re dumbers, artefacts predicated on our inability to understand them. Fine for a press release, useless for an economic crisis.

Robin McAlpine

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