Statistics. In these turbulent times the media throw one statistic after the other at us. Every statistic is countered by a ‘culture of skepticism’. This skepticism is understandable, but not very productive.
It’s not easy to produce reliable statistics and often not very easy to understand their significance. More specifically so when statistics try to grapple everyday changes, as with the covid-19-pandemia.
But before you think this blog is about the reliability and validity of statistics, its not. It just wants to throw some light on how statistics became an intricate part of our everyday life.
Table of contents
The First Measured Century
One of the most interesting books I ever bought is The First Measured Century. An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000. The title sounds a bit boring, but the content is amazing. Let me give some examples.
At the beginning of the 20th century 76 million people lived in the USA, at the end 200 million more. In 1900 life expectancy in the USA was on average 50 years, in 2000 it’s almost 80 years. From 1900 to 2000 the number of young people of the total population in the ages 0-19 went down a third .
Ages 60 and over of the total population tripled from 1900 to 2000. Moreover, the number of centenarians quintupled from 1900 to 2000. The shift to an aging society started earlier then I assumed. But the rise of centenarians did not start before the seventies. This rise is not only demographic, but can also be attributed to technological progress in healthcare and better living conditions.
The most striking though are occupational changes. The percentage of employed male farmers, fishermen, forestry workers, miners (blue collar workers) and the like decreased tenfold from 1900 to 2000. Whereas in the same period the so-called tertiary (white collar) occupations more than doubled.
However, for an understanding of the modern society it is important to take the rise of some white collar occupations in account. Per thousand inhabitants the number of physicians almost doubled, the number of lawyers more than doubled, and the number of engineers rose with an astounding FIFTEENFOLD.
The impact of social changes is best understood from two developments. The first is the decrease of people over 65 in the labor force from two-thirds in 1900 to less than one fifth in 2000. This change was only possible with immense investments in pension plans.
The second example is the rise of women in the labor force. With a short hiccup during the Second World War, the number of married women, of the total of married women in the labor force, from 1900 to 2000 steadily rose tenfold.
Of course it’s an interesting question what drove the rise of married women in the labor force. Was the shift in the public opinion emancipation driven? Or was it an economic necessity, boosted by consumer demand?
Probably both developments coincided. The economic necessity can be explained from the overall rise of the population living in suburbs. In 2000 half of the population lives in suburbs, whereas in 1900 this was just a little bit over a tenth. Living in suburbs usually comes with a house of one’s own and more cars. These could only be afforded with a mortgage and more income.
The emancipation shift in the public opinion is substantiated by polls that show that in 1936 an estimated 82 percent of the population disapproved of married women working. In 2000 this percentage was down to less than a fifth. These numbers also show that there will always be people shying away from modern society.
However, let’s not forget the most powerful driving force of these two changes: education! In 1910, the year in which for the first time educational results were measured on a national level, only 3 percent of the population of 25 and older was a college graduate or higher. In the same age group, just over 10 percent was a high school graduate or higher. At the end of the century in both cases the numbers had risen eightfold. An astounding achievement.
The statistical universe
We live in a statistical universe. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, scientists could gratify their occupational rigor by referring to a few cases or even one. However, modern scientific rigor dictates highly complicated statistical, meaning mathematical, rules and the use of very large samples.
Such rules and samples enable reliable and viable cross-references. However, reliability and viability require rigorous scientific methods. This essential methodological knowledge is more and more limited to a very small circuit of experts. Moreover, computers exert a decisive role in modern statistical analysis.
Every advantage has its disadvantage
No matter how insightful statistics may be, the downside of statistical rigor is that individual, everyday experiences disappeared from science. At the end of the 20th century a scientist even complained that the individual had totally disappeared from the science of psychology!
We can experience this also from the statistics of the current pandemic. No matter how many people were discharged from the hospitals, how many are still affected, and how many died, we hardly can get a grip on the individual human suffering.
Nor can we from human suffering in war or in the numerous refugee camps around the world. Science obstructs our experience of individual suffering. The more we will have to fight such suffering collectively.