COMMENTARYBy George Templeton
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy was not to look behind the curtain, but like Alice in Wonderland, she became “curiouser and curiouser” as she opened the telescope and looked backwards, down at her seemingly receding feet. That is what happens when you look through the wrong end of the telescope, when your world view insists that up is down.
I watched the eight hour Benghazi fact finding hearing recently. There, Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy could be found hiding behind the curtain of an alleged “all the truth and nothing but the truth, a final definitive accounting” which he stated was “my perspective”. We were invited to entertain conspiracies that were “within the realm of possibility”, but the fact is that we live in an unavoidably uncertain world. The improbable can occur, and by definition it is not foreseen.
If the proceeding had anything to do with improving the security of our overseas embassies it would have invited specialists who could address the situation at every location. Funding for improvements would have been discussed and planned for. Trey informed us that the hearing was not a prosecution, but you would think otherwise if you counted the number of lawyer congressmen present and the blaming tone of the proceeding. Trey’s angry outburst exclaiming “Just wait until the next round”, I’ll get you then, was not about inquiring. It came from his wounded competitive pride. It was not about fairness, promoting harmony, or statesmanship, putting the good of the American people above self-interest. It was about leading questions, “Isn’t it true that …”, and creating distrust.
Fox News had already run more than 1000 segments on Benghazi and there had been eight previous investigations. More time and money was wasted by tax payer funded political theater. It cost us 4.7 million dollars.
Trey Gowdy’s final assessment suggested that his “more” could be measured, counted, and added up to create a statistical labyrinth of truth. Statistics is about the collective, but only the individuals are real. They are described by the distribution of the data. They are free to do as they choose.
The digital world and big data is our latest rage, but the world is more than numbers. Numbers confuse fact with subjective reality. Things that are qualitative and complex are mapped into the quantitative and easy, but numerical data cannot begin to capture the many facets of real situations. Will surveying millions of people, “just like you”, lead to understanding and helping you? They say that data can change your world, but will it do it in ways that you want? We must remember that data collection requires categories, forms, and rules, and that officials with a mind-set and world-view will do their design.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified meat as carcinogenic, like cigarettes. It combined eight-hundred studies to argue that “probably?” red and processed meat (how much, how often, prepared how?) increased the chances of colon cancer by eighteen percent (above what?) in some people, somewhere. The study was a sample and as a consequence that eighteen percent has a tolerance, a confidence interval that was not reported. At least the WHO did not plagiarize research like the intelligently designing creationists do when they reinterpret findings. What about combining data, sensitivity to initial conditions, evolutionary behaviors, the branching tree of reality, hidden and interacting variables, and uncontrolled parameters?
Business wants to be your friend and will give you “points”. It will help you without your even asking.
Claims have been made that the fountain of youth and cures for chronic diseases that take a lifetime to develop have been found by simply surveying available world-wide data at a moment in time. Studies justify this, claiming that they are “almost statistically significant”. Findings are “linked together”, implying “relationships” while disregarding mathematics and doubt about “more of the same”.
It has been claimed that we should believe contradictory studies. The easiest solution to this quandary is to disregard all of them until a consensus of opinion between experts develops. A better solution requires learning a few things about data, probability, statistics, science, and experimental design. The public school system has been deficient in this regard, but leadership industries have found it necessary, developed complete curriculum, and successfully taught such things to selected high school graduates.
We must realize that the man behind the curtain is he who controls the computer that he uses to micromanage. His flaw is that he does not have the courage to admit that he does not understand. That makes it impossible to learn.
In March of last year I wrote about Nelson Goodman, categories, and self-referential ambiguity. Ever increasing complexity and a growing numbers of categories can become a “now you see it, now you don’t” shell game used to deceive and rob the poor and obscure. Science believes that quantification is an important thing for understanding. But Nelson Goodman creeps into that. Things cannot be measured without a precise definition of what is and what is not an instance of them.
When the immeasurable is quantified and computerized, it becomes “garbage in, garbage out”. For example, if you take a pill, you must have the problem it was taken for. The illness is the pill. That’s the easy way to see it. An assisted living facility will charge you for it even if the pill controls things; there has been no instance of it, no action taken, and no future plan. It is self-referential and circular because if you stop taking the pill, by definition that makes you well. The pill is no longer needed, but what was responsible for the pill in the first place could reoccur. Worse yet, every pill you take can be double counted, once for their administration and again for their implied crisis. Conveniently, this can be managed by executives who are thousands of miles away from families and caregivers.
Attaching a number to things does not just measure them. It changes them. When corporate rates numerical points (0.01 out of 2000) they imply authority and precision that does not exist. That number simplifies, overlooks, and forever more becomes part of your assessment. So, because a number and an expense will be attached to your condition, you might abandon a medication that works.
You have been taking that pill for 15 years, so long ago that you don’t remember what started it in the first place. If it’s working, the doctors continue it, and so it becomes an ambiguity, a self-referential justification for continuing the prescription. The assisted living center will charge you more and report it to government surveys indicting that you have a lifestyle interrupting problem even though it does not exist.
The truth is rarely simple and complete. It is not served by top-down corporate or government power and control. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that goes into statistics where subjectivity and incompleteness is ignored.
Some things cannot be put in words because doing so is only an approximation. There is such a thing as seeing without vision and gut feeling. They are important. But seeing is not just with the eyes. Biologically, we all have a blind spot, and the mind fills in for that flaw. There is such a thing as human reality and the metaphor that means different things to people in different situations. But the man behind the curtain will not have it that way. He will not embrace the unavoidable uncertainty that we have to learn to live with.
According to Fox News, the facts do not support man-caused global warming. They are only computer simulations that should be ignored, but shapes matter. Bends in a response curve reveal time constants and energy movement. The sharpness of those changes reveals whether the measured behaviors are simple or the result of many coupled things. It is forensic evidence, a signature that goes beyond the magnitude of temperature rise and the difference in slope between Centigrade and Fahrenheit degrees.
The bell curve is another shape that has impacted nearly everyone’s life. We were graded by it. It is the signature of probability, expected value, Las Vegas profits, and a random variable. What we have to consider is that all statistics is an abstraction. The only thing that is real is the data. Correlation is not causation. Scientists should be respected because data, measurement, and statistics are central to their work. They live with the problems of measurement and data every day.
The computer has made it possible to acquire and generate massive amounts of data. Those of us who worked within this situation recognize that a large portion of their job was to destroy data. It was necessary to survive. What we wanted was meaning. In science and math there are only a few simple but powerful ideas that apply to myriad situations. What we look for is the courage and insight of those providing mountains of data to interpret it. But that is only the first step.
A simplification is to fit a mathematical curve, line, or “fit” to the data. Then, all we have to do is consider the curve, how good the fit is, and whether it could have happened by chance or if there could be something that is partly responsible for it. Although these measures exist they are not communicated to the public because “the layman would not understand” or maybe because the author has a hidden objective.
The problem is that all the data points may not fall perfectly on the line. If we make the equation, the “fitting function”, more complex with lots of variables, we can make our curve go perfectly through every data point, but things become extremely complicated, confounding our original intent that was to simplify so we could see.
The simple straight line is the thing that high school graduates need to understand most of all. Fitting functions are an example of art work that can also use curved lines and equations such as those that are quadratic or cubic, but they are more likely to become wild and unstable.
In mathematics there can be any number of dimensions. Each variable used in a big data model adds another dimension. We can see up to three with difficulty. More than that improves the fit, but destroys simplification and our ability to see and to undertake the follow-on work that is necessary to understand what is going on.
The Clinton Inquisition
So, what does all this have to do with the Benghazi hearings? They were for the man behind the curtain who was growing “curiouser and curiouser” thinking that he might be able to discover, to fabricate a connection that would hurt his opponent.There is a moral imperative to this, but it is not the touchy, feely, personal morality of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a mean spirited morality, about expediency, duty, and pragmatism that emphasizes winning above policies that care about people. This is the human reality that we must weigh and decide.