William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Chesterton On Polls

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I was led by Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, to an article by Chesterton on the kinds of statistics used in polls. Here is an excerpt (the second paragraph is added for readability):

It is an error to suppose that statistics are merely untrue. They are also wicked. As used to-day, they serve the purpose of making masses of men feel helpless and cowardly…

And I have another quarrel with statistics. I believe that even when they are correct they are entirely misleading. The thing they say may sometimes be positively and really true: but even then the thing they mean is false. And it must always be remembered that this meaning is not only the only thing to which we ought to pay attention, but is literally, as a rule, the only thing our mind receives. When a man says something to us in the street, we hear what he means: we do not hear what he says. When we read some sentence in a book, we read what it means: we cannot see what it says. And so when we read statistics. It is impossible for the human intellect (which is divine) to hear a fact as a fact. It always hears a fact as a truth, which is an entirely different thing. A truth is a fact with a meaning. Many facts have no meaning at all, as far as we can really discover: but the human intellect (which is divine) always adds a meaning to the fact which it hears…

If we hear nothing else at all but this, that a man in Worthing has a cat, our souls make a dark unconscious effort to find some connections between the spirit of Worthing and the love of domestic animals…So when some dull and respectable Blue Book or dictionary tells us some dull and respectable piece of statistics, as that the number of homicidal arch-deacons is twice that of homicidal deans, or that five thousand babies eat soap in Battersea and only four thousand in Chelsea, it is almost impossible to avoid making some unconscious deduction from the facts, or at least making the facts means something…It is psychologically impossible, in short, when we hear real scientific statistics, not to think that they mean something. Generally they mean nothing. Sometimes they mean something that isn’t true…

Statistics never give the truth, because they never give the reasons.

Chesterton gave an example of a poll in which it was learned a certain high percentage of folks breakfasted at some later hour, to which a reader might “react” (in his words) “Lazy Beasts!”, though each of the people polled who ate late had an admirable reason for doing so. These reasons were lost in the summary.

Now we, with a century’s more experience, are supposed to be more sophisticated about polls. We wouldn’t hear a poll that reported “62% of Catholics support the President” and put that support down to Catholicism (or its lack). And we wouldn’t read in a “scientific” study that “58.432% of men had a high hate score but only 53.918% (P < 0.001) women had a high score" and claim that maleness caused the higher percentage. Would we? And not having made those classic blunders, we surely wouldn't go further and say something asinine like "Catholics support the President" or "Men hate more than women". Right? Call this the mis-ascription or causal fallacy, the claim that the label assigned in the survey causes the answers given.

Now the ascription is not always in error. If somebody says to an exit pollster, “I voted for the Democrat candidate because I’m a Democrat” and if the pollster releases his results that say, “89% of those identifying as Democrat voted for the Democrat candidate”, then we tell the truth if we say, “At least one Democrat voted for the Democrat candidate because that person was a Democrat.” About the others in the sample, we do not know.

It is not an unreasonable assumption to say more than one voted because of his party status, though that assumption should be couched in probabilistic language, but it is clearly fallacious to say all the remaining did so. And it is fallacious even if everybody else in the sample voted on the party line because all were loyal party members. It is fallacious because the cause wasn’t measured, thus there is no warrant to claim the cause is known.

Chesterton is right. The ascription of some cause is a reaction, an irresistible temptation. Even those characteristics not part of the official data measurement are in game as “the” cause. This is why so many experts are terrific at saying why something happened, but why they are so terrible at making predictions.

——————————————

GK Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, 18 Nov 1905, vol 37, no 967, p. 702.

12 Comments

  1. The ascription of some cause is a reaction, an irresistible temptation.
    The Devil really is in the details.

  2. I see! Political polls are always true!!! The President is a Christian who has been good for the country. Congress is looking out for the country. Women in combat roles is necessary. Our main stream news is impartial and balanced. ETC.

  3. Love the babies eating soap example–such visual!!
    (Now, how many of you, even for a brief moment, thought that was because I’m female?!)

    Humans have this insatiable need to know why and sadly are not very decerning about from whence they get that information. That’s probably why psychics are so popular, even to the point to of appearing on Dr. Oz. (Wait, am I taking Dr. Oz, the no longer a doctor but now an entertainer, as believing when he actually just wants ratings? Oh, that is very complicated…….)

    I actually started taking note of much of this after college. I had really good philosophy and statistics teachers and was able to spot where statistics were being used to manipulate and where used inappropriately. Global warming “science” really brought all of this into focus, along with the constant flow of “scientific studies” that showed salt was bad for you, then it was good for you, then everything was bad for you, etc. The media is a champion of affixing explanations and meanings where none exist. According to the CBS news anchor, it’s team work and they are very proud of what they do. 🙂

  4. When I first read Chesterton, I was shocked at the clarity of thought in his stories and nonfiction. It is such a shame he is not taught in most schools.

  5. Sheri, “Now, how many of you, even for a brief moment, thought that was because I’m female?!”

    Isn’t everything that you say because ….. 😉

    Chesterton is an interesting writer. I concur with Nate and I assume Briggs. He goes well with a little Leacock.

  6. When I had the intro to statistics course the professor recommended we read this book. It’s dated but still worth a read.
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Lie-Statistics-D-Huff/dp/B0037F33E0

  7. Now there, see, is why I have this love/hate thing going with Chesterton. I was utterly charmed reading that excerpt, and there is a solid point in there, but after the trance is over, one can also note so much that is mere charming flimsy.

    For Chesterton is a phrase-making animal, a narrative-making animal, not a particularly rational one; though thankfully, he tries hard not to be a rationalizing one. And in a sense the excerpt, in its very manner, defeats his point rather than supports it.

    For, in a manner quite familiar to hypnotists, neuro-linguistic programmers, and advertising copy-writers at least as far back as P.G. Wodehouse’s early days, Chesterton quite skillfully inserts into his prose a supposed aside, which is really a dramatically under-determined claim in the guise of an implicit command, that the human intellect is divine: “(which is divine).”

    He even marks the under-determined claim for our attention by putting it in parentheses, where it sticks out rather than recedes. And then he does the very same thing just a few sentences later. “Oh yes, it’s divine,” we think briefly, and move on. But the idea, unexamined by us and unsupported by him, sticks.

    This is hypnosis, this is soap-salesman flummery – this is Chesterton – not argument. And indeed, in page after artful page, he gives us charming narrative, cast up willy-nilly around some kernel of truth, and he does it as effortlessly and skillfully as a child breathes while enraptured in play.

    But adults must instead cough out intermittent, sparse, wheezy gasps of argument, because, unlike narrative, we do argument like Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

    And so, after having been once again so reliably entranced, beguiled, charmed by Chesterton’s magical prose, which so wonderfully perpetually gives us the impression that we’re simply talking graceful common sense together, we’re left, not only with the sound idea that “statistics” and “cause” are strange bedfellows, but also not with the argument, but rather with the impression, that the human intellect is divine, because we seek… well, what?

    And here Chesterton is cagey. He says that we seek truth; but then he himself shows us that instead, we seek narrative. In fact, he shows that we insist on narrative, and that, if we cannot find one laid out before us, we will create it spontaneously, inevitably: “it always ADDS a meaning”(?!).

    And that is something the most patently nihilistic modern philosopher could agree with.

    Thus, in the manner by which he supports his argument, Chesterton proves that it is false.

    I wish I could continue this part-devoted-Chestertonian-homage/part-serious-critique further, but, I, unlike Chesterton, am not being paid by the word, so I end here.

  8. I agree with JohnK’s appraisal of Chesterton and would add that I find much of what he wrote boring. His account of St. Thomas Aquinas is not illuminating and is full of phony self-deprecation. I don’t like his anti-semitism, even though it probably comes naturally as a member of the English haute bourgeoisie (sp?) and upper class; it isn’t quite as virulent as that of Trollope, but still bothering. The Fr. Brown mysteries are OK, but labored.

  9. I can see the point which GK Chesterton was making. Polls especially are skewed by those setting them up never mind by those who interpret them.
    Chesterton’s prolixity was the style when writing for The Illustrated London News which was a magazine for Victorians and Edwardians who had to fill in leisure time without radio and television and depended on it for information not in the newspapers. Even the Times was wordy in the extreme.
    and on another subject.
    Trollope did not seem antisemitic to me! Madame Max in the Palliser novels who was a real friend to the old Duke and who married Phineas Finn was clearly a lovely Jewish woman.

  10. Ray: That was one of the books my professor used too. It is definitely worth the read.

    Scotian: I don’t think so. 🙂

    JohnK: I noticed the same thing–however, it’s not uncommon for people to be completely blind to their own behaviours. It doesn’t mean he isn’t right. It just means he’s annoying and without insight into his own behaviour.

  11. ME Wood…sorry to be off-topic, but the anti-semitism of Chesterton and Trollope is an interesting question. Was Madame Max Jewish? I knew she was Austrian/German, but she did marry Phineas Finn.
    But if you look at all the references to Jewish money lenders, to the bad character of Ferdinand Lopez (presumed to be Jewish) and the prime Jewish villain in “How We Live Now”, I think one would have to see a polite or maybe not-so-polite antisemitism. Perhaps Madame Max would be categorized for Trollope in the “some of my best friends…” category.

  12. again apologizing for off-topice,… Phineas Finn was Irish…

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