Despite my hatred of the slide rule, one of my fondest memories of the slide rule period was that there tended to be “statistics” (“official numbers” if you will) which scientists as well as lay people could consult.
The “unemployment rate” is officially estimated to range between 4% and 6%. (The current figure, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 4.7%.) But this site claims it is actually a whopping 23%.
I’m using the above as an extreme example, by way of illustration. But what are we to make of increasingly vast divergences in what used to be considered factual data?
While most conservatives today would accept the government’s 4.7% unemployment figure, an ever larger number think the government’s immigration statistics are wrong, and they offer their own.

  • A year ago, the conservative Newsmax cited a Pew Study claiming there were 10 million illegal aliens.
  • This year, Pew claims there are 12 million.
  • The anti-illegal-immigrant Numbers USA still seems to maintain that there are 8 to 11 million.
  • But a Barron’s study cited by Michelle Malkin and many others claims there are 20 million.
  • As of this writing, The American Resistance claims that there are 28,472,970 illegal aliens in this country. Proprietor D.A. King writes elsewhere that the government numbers are not to be trusted:

    I think it obvious that many of the patriots involved with immigration reform realize the commonly stated illegal aliens statistics are low. Why we are stuck to 8-12 million as our figure for illegal aliens is hard for me to understand. Perhaps this column will generate the necessary debate to bring the real figures to the front.
    The official estimate of the illegal alien population has been regularly increased, last time in December 2003, by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, in a softening up action before the White House dropped its amnesty bomb. The ?8 -12 million? range replaced an already outdated 2000 census figure of 6-7 million [one that was later corrected to 8 million.]
    Almost immediately after the 2000 figures were released, at least one major immigration reform organization, issued its own calculation showing the absurdity of the census report. [2000 Census Shows that Illegal Alien Population Much Larger than Estimated by INS, FAIR press release, Feb 6,2001]
    In the post-Census era, some observers offered thirteen million illegals as a realistic figure.
    But that number did not catch on.
    I am not alone in the suspicion that various federal agencies are misleading trusting American citizens.
    We have allowed a government that permits the assault on our sovereignty to measure and report the level of damage that it, itself, is causing.
    If we continue that to be passive, we will pay the price for not resisting.

    Mr. King offers a strong and passionate argument, but as to the hard numbers, there’s more surmise than facts.

  • It should be pointed out that Mr. King’s 28 million figure makes WorldNetDaily appear almost “moderate” on this “issue.”
  • Issue it is; the numbers themselves are no longer statistics, but are themselves issues to be debated. Makes it rather tougher and tougher to have anything resembling a reasonable discussion.
    As I point all of this out, I should remind readers that I am not someone who trusts or accepts government figures at their face value. Or pronouncements of “experts.” I am a skeptic, and I am ever more skeptical over time, because experts themselves — even government experts — are biased. In my view, the most insidious kind of bias is the concealed variety which masquerades as “objectivity.”
    Even “scientific objectivity.” Global Warming is a perfect example of this. Many of the shrill claims made in the name of “science” have turned out to be exaggerated, and have been advanced by scientists whose minds are made up and who conceal any data which might encourage skepticism — to the point where scientists with dissenting views are actually banned from their conferences. (In the days of the slide rule, I was taught at UC Berkeley’s Department of Paleontology that we were still in the Ice Age, and that a period of global cooling was setting in, so not only have I been distrustful of the more recent turnaround, I suspect a bait-and-switch operation.)
    How many homosexuals are there in the United States? Gay activists claim as high as 10%, while their opponents claim as low as 1%. (Typical numbers debate here.)
    But my point is not to argue the merits of Global Warming, immigration, homosexuality, or unemployment. What bothers me is the disappearance of real, unbiased statistics in favor of shrill, ever-more-partisan ones.
    Statistics, in my view, are rapidly becoming opinions.
    I miss the good old days when they were facts.
    But what if I was duped as a young person?
    Maybe statistics weren’t facts even then.
    (Now that I think about it, I remember Rachel Carson. Paul Ehrlich. And other promoters of “scientific truth” . . .)
    While I could easily write a goofy satire about the now meaningless nature of numbers and statistics, there is a serious side to the problem. (Yes, “not knowing” is a problem.) I suspect that especially when coupled with existing information overload, the blurring of the line between fact and opinion by politically-contaminated numbers fosters a mental condition known as cognitive dissonance.

    . . .the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, which can be defined as any element of knowledge, attitude, emotion, belief or value, or a goal, plan, or interest. The theory of cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. Experiments have attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive.

    Because we are taught that statistics — hard numbers — are things we can all agree upon, we become disturbed when the statistics become arguments, because after all, they are not supposed to be arguments, but data. Hence, in our brains, this triggers a “does not compute” cycle which is deeply disturbing. Rather than succumb to burnout, the natural human tendency, in my view, is simply to choose sides. But this is itself less than satisfying to anyone who really wants to be honest, and I think it can lead to great stress, and it might be responsible for much of the anger that occurs when people get into arguments over “facts.” In logic, if there are competing statistics, neither set of which can be satisfactorily proven, then there is no factual basis upon which to have a rational argument. This means necessarily that the arguments will be based on emotion, as data — once facts — are now emotional. (This is tricky, of course, because it is also possible that a given statistic is correct, and that the person opposing it might be citing statistics that are entirely wrong. But the existence of increasingly biased statistics gives unreasonable people the green light to advance ever more fantastic statistics on the one hand, and to deny opposing statistics on the other.)
    I know that the idea of “emotional statistics” sounds like a contradiction, but that is the nature of cognitive dissonance.
    The father of cognitive dissonance argues that the problem can be resolved by adding missing information:

    When confronted with two belief cognitions that contradict each other, Festinger suggests the dissonance can be resolved by finding and adding a third piece of information relevant to the two beliefs.

    What if the missing third piece of information is the fact that the statistics causing the cognitive dissonance are not facts, but arguments?
    Wouldn’t that at least relieve stress?
    Maybe so. But might it also lead to post-modernist/deconstructionist-style nihilism?
    Don’t ask me, for I am not objective in these matters. I refuse to become a nihilist, a decon, or a pomo, because I am a proud, out-of-the-closet cynic who believes that there is such a thing as truth (elusive though it so often is).
    Cynicism is my way of being an optimist.
    (An internal caveat, though, is that my dark side is often tempted by emotionally satisfying numbers.)