Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quote of the day

It’s becoming apparent that there’s a divide between people who are quantitatively minded, and people who aren’t. I don’t think people in the latter category can understand quite how viscerally people in the former category react against the misuse of numbers.

Nobody likes being bullshitted. I think that’s universal. However, not everyone has a feeling for whether or not a numerical statement is bullshit. The numbers quoted by Amnesty are bullshit, that’s become quite clear. The difference is between those who think that the qualitative argument - that domestic violence is a big problem that particularly affect women - is all that matters, and those who think that the accuracy of the quantitative description of that problem also matters.

I can’t stay on the fence here. Quantitative accuracy matters. The modern world has been constructed by people who cared about the value of quantitative accuracy, from antibiotics to the contraceptive pill to the internet. If you take advantage of these things, you have no place bashing people who are obsessive about quantitative accuracy: your way of life depends on them.

And let’s be quite clear: when people who care about quantitative accuracy criticise your figures, it’s not because they oppose your political positon. It’s not because they’re your enemy. It’s because you’ve got your numbers wrong. Quantitvely-minded people care about this in the abstract, regardless of the political context. In doing so, they are upholding an important value that transcends politics. Truth matters, and nobody should be criticised for upholding that value. - [source]

That's the science writer Iain Coleman, who elegantly summarizes the divide over Amnesty International's problematic statistic

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