I am currently reading a book about the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the author has recently been comparing the development of textile mills, steam engines, and chemical production in Britain in the 1800’s to the same developments on the European continent. It is clear that within Britain the developments of new technologies and the adoption of larger factories to produce more material was much quicker than on the continent, but exactly how much quicker is hard to determine. One of the biggest challenges is finding reliable and accurate information to compare the number of textile factories, the horse power of steam engines, or how many chemical products were exported in a given decade. In the 1850s getting good data and preserving that data for historians to sift through and analyze a couple of hundred years later was not an easy task. Many of the numbers that the author has referenced are generalized estimates and ranges, not well defined statistical figures. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean the data are not useful and cannot help us understand general trends of the industrial revolution in Britain and the European continent.
Our ability to obtain and store numbers, information, and data is much better today than in the 1800s, but that doesn’t mean that all of our numbers are now perfect and that we have everything figured out. Sometimes our data comes from pretty reliable sources, like the GPS map data on Strava that gives us an idea of where lots of people like to exercise and where very few people exercise. Other data is pulled from surveys which can be unreliable or influenced by word choice and response order. Some data comes from observational studies that might be flawed in one way or another. Other data may just be incomplete, from small sample sizes, or simply messy and hard to understand. Getting good information out of such data is almost impossible. As the saying goes, garbage in – garbage out.
Consequently we end up with political numbers and scientific numbers. Christopher Jencks wrote about the role that both have played in how we understand and think about homelessness in his book The Homeless. He writes, “one needs to distinguish between scientific and political numbers. This distinction has nothing to do with accuracy. Scientific numbers are often wrong, and political numbers are often right. But scientific numbers are accompanied by enough documentation so you can tell who counted what, whereas political numbers are not.”
It is interesting to think about the accuracy (or perhaps inaccuracy) of the numbers we use to understand our world. Jencks explains that censuses of homeless individuals need to be conducted early in the morning or late at night to capture the full number of people sleeping in parks or leaving from/returning to overnight shelters. He also notes the difficulty of contacting people to confirm their homeless status and the challenges of simply surveying people by asking if they have a home. People use different definitions of having a home, being homeless, or having a fixed address and those differences can influence the count of how many homeless people live within a city or state. The numbers are backed by a scientific process, but they may be inaccurate and not representative of reality. By contrast, political numbers could be based on a random advocate’s average count of meals provided at a homeless shelter or by other estimates. These estimates may end up being just as accurate, or more so, than the scientific numbers used, but how the numbers are used and understood can be very different.
Advocacy groups, politicians, and concerned citizens can use non-scientific numbers to advance their cause or their point of view. They can rely on general estimates to demonstrate that something is or is not a problem. But they can’t necessarily drive actual action by governments, charities, or private organizations with only political numbers. Decisions look bad when made based on rough guesses and estimates. They look much better when they are backed by scientific numbers, even if those numbers are flawed. When it is time to actually vote, when policies have to be written and enacted, and when a check needs to be signed, having some sort of scientific backing to a number is crucial for self-defense and for (at least an attempt at) rational thinking.
Today we are a long way off from the pen and paper (quill and scroll?) days of the 1800s. We have the ability to collect far more data than we could have ever imagined, but the numbers we end up with are not always that much better than rough estimates and guesses. We may use the data in a way that shows that we trust the science and numbers, but the information may ultimately be useless. These are some of the frustrations that so many people have today with the ways we talk about politics and policy. Political numbers may suggest we live in one reality, but scientific numbers may suggest another reality. Figuring out which is correct and which we should trust is almost impossible, and the end result is confusion and frustration. We probably solve this with time, but it will be a hard problem that will hang around and worsen as misinformation spreads online.