The Long Read: The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over and putting democracy in peril
In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone no matter what their politics can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here.
Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various experts that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some peoples sense of political decency.
Nowhere is this more vividly manifest than with immigration. The thinktank British Future has studied how best to win arguments in favour of immigration and multiculturalism. One of its main findings is that people often respond warmly to qualitative evidence, such as the stories of individual migrants and photographs of diverse communities. But statistics especially regarding alleged benefits of migration to Britains economy elicit quite the opposite reaction. People assume that the numbers are manipulated and dislike the elitism of resorting to quantitative evidence. Presented with official estimates of how many immigrants are in the country illegally, a common response is to scoff. Far from increasing support for immigration, British Future found, pointing to its positive effect on GDP can actually make people more hostile to it. GDP itself has come to seem like a Trojan horse for an elitist liberal agenda. Sensing this, politicians have now largely abandoned discussing immigration in economic terms.
All of this presents a serious challenge for liberal democracy. Put bluntly, the British government its officials, experts, advisers and many of its politicians does believe that immigration is on balance good for the economy. The British government did believe that Brexit was the wrong choice. The problem is that the government is now engaged in self-censorship, for fear of provoking people further.
This is an unwelcome dilemma. Either the state continues to make claims that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else, politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and intuitively true, but may ultimately be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes mired in accusations of lies and cover-ups.
The declining authority of statistics and the experts who analyse them is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as post-truth politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to peoples emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own truth of what is going on across society.
Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history.We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how if at all we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside.
In the second half of the 17th century, in the aftermath of prolonged and bloody conflicts, European rulers adopted an entirely new perspective on the task of government, focused upon demographic trends an approach made possible by the birth of modern statistics. Since ancient times, censuses had been used to track population size, but these were costly and laborious to carry out and focused on citizens who were considered politically important (property-owning men), rather than society as a whole. Statistics offered something quite different, transforming the nature of politics in the process.
Statistics were designed to give an understanding of a population in its entirety,rather than simply to pinpoint strategically valuable sources of power and wealth. In the early days, this didnt always involve producing numbers. In Germany, for example (from where we get the term Statistik) the challenge was to map disparate customs, institutions and laws across an empire of hundreds of micro-states. What characterised this knowledge as statistical was its holistic nature: it aimed to produce a picture of the nation as a whole. Statistics would do for populations what cartography did for territory.
Equally significant was the inspiration of the natural sciences. Thanks to standardised measures and mathematical techniques, statistical knowledge could be presented as objective, in much the same way as astronomy. Pioneering English demographers such as William Petty and John Graunt adapted mathematical techniques to estimate population changes, for which they were hired by Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.
The emergence in the late 17th century of government advisers claiming scientific authority, rather than political or military acumen, represents the origins of the expert culture now so reviled by populists. These path-breaking individuals were neither pure scholars nor government officials, but hovered somewhere between the two. They were enthusiastic amateurs who offered a new way of thinking about populations that privileged aggregates and objective facts. Thanks to their mathematical prowess, they believed they could calculate what would otherwise require a vast census to discover.
There was initially only one client for this type of expertise, and the clue is in the word statistics. Only centralised nation states had the capacity to collect data across large populations in a standardised fashion and only states had any need for such data in the first place. Over the second half of the 18th century, European states began to collect more statistics of the sort that would appear familiar to us today. Casting an eye over national populations, states became focused upon a range of quantities: births, deaths, baptisms, marriages, harvests, imports, exports, price fluctuations. Things that would previously have been registered locally and variously at parish level became aggregated at a national level.
New techniques were developed to represent these indicators, which exploited both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the page, laying out data in matrices and tables, just as merchants had done with the development of standardised book-keeping techniques in the late 15th century. Organising numbers into rows and columns offered a powerful new way of displaying the attributes of a given society. Large, complex issues could now be surveyed simply by scanning the data laid out geometrically across a single page.
These innovations carried extraordinary potential for governments. By simplifying diverse populations down to specific indicators, and displaying them in suitable tables, governments could circumvent the need to acquire broader detailed local and historical insight. Of course, viewed from a different perspective, this blindness to local cultural variability is precisely what makes statistics vulgar and potentially offensive. Regardless of whether a given nation had any common cultural identity, statisticians would assume some standard uniformity or, some might argue, impose that uniformity upon it.
Not every aspect of a given population can be captured by statistics. There is always an implicit choice in what is included and what is excluded, and this choice can become a political issue in its own right. The fact that GDP only captures the value of paid work, thereby excluding the work traditionally done by women in the domestic sphere, has made it a target of feminist critique since the 1960s. In France, it has been illegal to collect census data on ethnicity since 1978, on the basis that such data could be used for racist political purposes. (This has the side-effect of making systemic racism in the labour market much harder to quantify.)
Despite these criticisms, the aspiration to depict a society in its entirety, and to do so in an objective fashion, has meant that various progressive ideals have been attached to statistics. The image of statistics as a dispassionate science of society is only one part of the story. The other part is about how powerful political ideals became invested in these techniques: ideals of evidence-based policy, rationality, progress and nationhood grounded in facts, rather than in romanticised stories.
Since the high-point of the Enlightenmentin the late 18th century, liberals and republicans have invested great hope that national measurement frameworks could produce a more rational politics, organised around demonstrable improvements in social and economic life. The great theorist of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, famously described nations as imagined communities,but statistics offer the promise of anchoring this imagination in something tangible. Equally, they promise to reveal what historical path the nation is on: what kind of progress is occurring? How rapidly? For Enlightenment liberals, who saw nations as moving in a single historical direction, this question was crucial.
The potential of statistics to reveal the state of the nation was seized in post-revolutionary France. The Jacobin state set about imposing a whole new framework of national measurement and national data collection. The worlds first official bureau of statistics was opened in Paris in 1800. Uniformity of data collection, overseen by a centralised cadre of highly educated experts, was an integral part of the ideal of a centrally governed republic, which sought to establish a unified, egalitarian society.
From the Enlightenment onwards, statistics played an increasingly important role in the public sphere, informing debate in the media, providing social movements with evidence they could use. Over time, the production and analysis of such data became less dominated by the state. Academic social scientists began to analyse data for their own purposes, often entirely unconnected to government policy goals. By the late 19th century, reformers such as Charles Booth in London and WEB Du Bois in Philadelphia were conducting their own surveys to understand urban poverty.
In conservative upstate New York an alternative inauguration party will hail the fact that 3 million more people voted for Clinton as defiance spreads nationwide
On the evening of 20 January, just a few hours after the former host of Celebrity Apprentice has taken the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States, about 80 people in the tiny snowbound town of Saranac Lake in heavily conservative upstate New York will gather for an inauguration party.
The event is being billed as a celebration, a chance to rejoice in the electoral victory that saw their political ideals prevail. Food and drink will flow freely, musicians from across the area will perform. The Stars and Stripes will be flown to denote the deep patriotism of the event. And then at the height of the night the carousers will participate in a rendition of Leonard Cohens Hallelujah, with lyrics specially rewritten for the occasion.
Trump said hed make us great again
But we dont even trust the man
He lies and cheats and tries to foster anger
As the lyrics suggest, the party will not be honoring the electoral victory of the newly enshrined President Trump. On the contrary, Saranac Lakes Alternative Inauguration Party will mark the defeat of Donald Trumps brand of anti-establishment xenophobic nationalism.
A celebration of Trumps defeat on the day of his inauguration seems several stages beyond fanciful. The real estate billionaire did after all pull off one of the biggest electoral surprises of modern times.
Yet the progressive inhabitants of Saranac Lake are not alone in such thinking. Across the country, a growing chorus of influential voices can be heard exhorting liberals not to wallow in despondency in the wake of the Trump ascendancy, but to embrace optimism and celebrate a victory of their own.
From national leaders such as Bernie Sanders and the Rev Al Sharpton, to state authorities on both coasts, through urban bastions and university towns scattered across the heartlands, a unifying message is emerging. Do not despair, it says, we won!
The counterintuitive idea of liberal victory in the 2016 presidential race is posited on Hillary Clintons startling triumph in the popular vote. With the final tally of votes now certified by all 50 states, the definitive result of the presidential election carries quite a punch.
Clinton attracted the support of 65,844,610 Americans. Trump was backed by 62,979,636. Which means that fully 2.9 million more Americans voted for Trumps Democratic opponent than for him.
Whether those millions voted because they liked Clintons vision for the country, or because they detested Trumps, is impossible to say. But it is fair to say that Trump failed to persuade a majority of voting Americans to back him on his unlikely journey to the White House.
National political leaders have begun, like the folk of Saranac Lake, to draw strength for the no-doubt brutal fight ahead by focusing on the popular vote as a measure of the depth of support for progressive values that persist in the US today. Bernie Sanders, who played no small part in boosting Clintons numbers by inspiring young people to rally to the liberal cause, told the Guardian that in his view the president-elect had to take on board the truth of his defeat in terms of national votes and act accordingly.
Mr Trump has got to understand that he does not have a mandate. He lost by almost 3 million votes.
Sanders went on to say that the knowledge that most voting Americans backed progressive policies on 8 November should embolden people as the new Trump era begins. If we stand together, we can effectively take on Mr Trumps ugly ideas and continue the fight for a progressive vision for this country. On virtually every major issue facing this country whether its raising the minimum wage, pay equity for women, rebuilding our infrastructure, making public colleges and universities tuition-free, criminal justice and immigration reform, dealing with income and wealth inequality the strong majority of the American people are on our side.
Hidden Figures, the hit film that tells the story of three black women who helped NASA send a man into orbit, has been praised for putting women of color in the spotlight.
Thats why people across the country teens, teachers and community leaders are raising money through GoFundMe to ensure young girls can see the movie.
One of those people is Taylor Richardson, a 13-year-old aspiring astronaut from Florida, who wants to send 100 girls to see Hidden Figures at a theater in Jacksonville, Florida. She also wants to raise money on GoFundMe for the girls to have snacks and get a copy of the Hidden Figures book.
Richardson first saw the movie at a screening at the White House and has since seen it three more times. She said the film was amazing.
I cried, I laughed, I got angry and then got determined to not let others impressions of me because of the color of my skin impact how my life will be, she told The Huffington Post. These black women did something I never knew about, and its not in any history books that Ive studied thus far.
As of Friday, Richardson has raised $2,540 of her $2,600 goal. She found the girls she plans to take to see the film from organizations that have impacted her life like the YMCA, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, See The Girl and Journey Into Womanhood. She wants them to go home after the movie feeling as inspired as she did.
This movie instills that us girls can dream big and make it even when odds are against us, she said. Most importantly I want girls to know that, like boys, they too can excel in STEM with hard work.
Several teachers across the country have also started GoFundMe campaigns to help send their students to see the influential film. After reaching his goal of $1,000, Peter Modlin will be taking girls in second, third, fourth and fifth grade who attend the Baltimore elementary school where he teaches. Modlin told HuffPost he hopes the students learn to dream big after watching the movie.
I want the girls to see this movie in hopes that a lightbulb might go off, he said. A lightbulb that signifies a belief in the opportunity to do or be anything they want to be, if they work hard to achieve that goal.
Like Richardson and Modlin, Phyllis Marshall raised money on GoFundMe so local girls could see Hidden Figures, and has since taken them to see it.
On Jan. 7, she took 50 girls from Roberts Family Development Center in Sacramento, California, to the theater.Shes worked with the center, which is in a low-income community and provides after-school care, for years.Through GoFundMe she raised more than her $1,500 goal, which provided transportation, snacks and tickets to the movie. Marshall said they loved it.
Marshall was glad to be able to show the girls that women can succeed in science, technology and mathematics. She was especially thrilled to show them that women of color and their success deserve a place on the big screen.
I certainly hope as many young girls get to see that movie as possible.
Other teachers and community leaders are raising money for kids to see Hidden Figures, too.Check out their campaigns below.
British-Iraqi architect behind London 2012 aquatics centre leaves 1.7m to relatives and 500,000 to business partner
Zaha Hadid, the British-Iraqi architect who died suddenly last March, left a fortune worth 67m, her will reveals.
The designer of the London Olympics aquatics centre, Guangzhou opera house and buildings in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia and South Korea to Azerbaijan, bequeathed a lump sum of 500,000 to her business partner Patrik Schumacher. Hadid also left a total of 1.7m to four nieces and nephews, as well as her brother Haytham Hadid, whose share was 500,000.
The architect, who was made a dame in 2012, was unmarried with no children and left her international design businesses, which account for the bulk of her wealth, in trust.
(CNN)Eugene A. Cernan, the last astronaut to leave his footprints on the surface of the moon, has died, NASA said Monday.
If you visit the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) exhibition, now at the Queensland Museum, youll see the recreation of a moment when the scientist who saw the first results indicating discovery of the Higgs boson laments she cant yet tell anyone.
Its a transitory problem for her, lasting as long as it takes for the result to be thoroughly cross-checked. But it illustrates a key concept in science: its not enough to do it; it must be communicated.
Thats what is behind one of the lesser known initiatives of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research): an ambitious plan to make all its research in particle physics available to everyone, with a big global collaboration inspired by the way scientists came together to make discoveries at the LHC.
This initiative is called SCOAP, the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access in Particle Physics Publishing, and is now about to enter its fourth year of operation. Its a worldwide collaboration of more than 3,000 libraries (including six in Australia), key funding agencies and research centres in 44 countries, together with three intergovernmental organisations.
It aims to make work previously only available to paying subscribers of academic journals freely and immediately available to everyone. In its first three years it has made more than 13,000 articles available.
Not only are these articles free for anyone to read, but because they are published under a Creative Commons attribution license (CCBY), they are also available for anyone to use in anyway they wish, such as to illustrate a talk, pass onto a class of school children, or feed to an artificial intelligence program to extract information from. And these usage rights are enshrined forever.
The concept of sharing research is not new in physics. Open access to research is now a growing worldwide initiative, including in Australasia. CERN, which runs the LHC, was also where the world wide web was invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist at CERN.
The main purpose of the web was to enable researchers contributing to CERN from all over the world share documents, including scientific drafts, no matter what computer systems they were using.
Before the web, physicists had been sharing paper drafts by post for decades, so they were one of the first groups to really embrace the new online opportunities for sharing early research. Today, the pre-press site arxiv.org has more than a million free article drafts covering physics, mathematics, astronomy and more.
But, with such a specialised field, do these open access papers really matter? The short answer is yes. Downloads have doubled to journals participating in SCOAP.
With millions of open access articles now being downloaded across all specialities, there is enormous opportunity for new ideas and collaborations to spring from chance readership. This is an important trend: the concept of serendipity enabled by open access was explored in 2015 in an episode of ABC RNs Future Tense program.
Greater than the sum of the parts
Theres also a bigger picture to SCOAPs open access model. Not long ago, the research literature was fragmented. Individual papers and the connections between them were only as good as the physical library, with its paper journals, that academics had access to.
Now we can do searches in much less time than we spend thinking of the search question, and the results we are presented with are crucially dependent on how easily available the findings themselves are. And availability is not just a function of whether an article is free or not but whether it is truly open, i.e. connected and reusable.
One concept is whether research is FAIR, or Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. In short, can anyone find, read, use and reuse the work?
The principle is most advanced for data, but in Australia work is ongoing to apply it to all research outputs. This approach was also proposed at the November 2016 meeting of the G20 Science, Technology and Innovation Ministers Meeting. Research findings that are not FAIR can, effectively, be invisible. Its a huge waste of millions of taxpayer dollars to fund research that wont be seen.
There is an even bigger picture that research and research publications have to fit into: that of science in society.
Across the world we see politicians challenging accepted scientific norms. Is the fact that most academic research remains available only to those who can pay to see it contributing to an acceptance of such misinformed views?
If one role for science is to inform public debate, then restricting access to that science will necessarily hinder any informed public debate. Although no one suggests that most readers of news sites will regularly want to delve into the details of papers in high energy physics, open access papers are 47% more likely to end up being cited in Wikipedia, which is a source that many non-scientists do turn to.
Even worse, work that is not available openly now may not even be available in perpetuity, something that is being discussed by scientists in the USA.
So in the same way that CERN itself is an example of the power of international collaboration to ask some of the fundamental scientific questions of our time, SCOAP provides a way to ensure that the answers, whatever they are, are available to everyone, forever.
This is Ada King, the countess of Lovelace. In 1843 she composed the basis for what many call the first computer program.
As the story goes, Lovelace entered into correspondence with inventor Charles Babbage after meeting him at a party. The two eventually discussed Babbage’s idea for an “analytical engine” — essentially a computer that could use an algorithm to shape its output — and Lovelace is credited with greatly expanding on and refining the concept.
In a sense, she pioneered the idea of a computer algorithm. As Biography.com puts it:
In her notes, Ada described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. Ada also offered up other forward-thinking concepts in the article. For her work, Ada is often considered to be the first computer programmer.
There are a couple of things worth taking from this 19th-century story.
First and most obviously: Any time someone suggests that women are less inclined toward pursuits like technology and mathematics, you can immediately shoot them down. (And probably never talk to them again, because it’s simply a conversation that shouldn’t happen in the first place.)
But this is also a story of collaboration.
Babbage and Lovelace were a team. At a time when men dominate the tech industry and businesses overall, this is a reminder that diverse talent can — and should — be elevated by those who are privileged enough to get a head start.
Released for International Womens Day, a Unesco study of teaching materials in countries around the globe has found overwhelmingly strong gender bias
In a Turkish textbook, a girl is pictured dreaming of her wedding day, while a boy imagines becoming a doctor. In a Tunisian one, students are asked to complete sentences about Mr Thompson, who is in the garage washing his car, and Mrs Thompson, in the kitchen preparing lunch (she [likes] cooking very much, they discover). A new report from Unesco says that gender bias is rife in textbooks around the world, and is undermining girls motivation and achievement in schools.
Complete the countdown conundrum 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017 and win a prize
Here in Numberland, we always knew that 2016 was going to be a bad one, since:
2016 = 666 + 666 + 666 + 6 + 6 + 6
But thats last years news. Whats the story about 2017, arithmetically speaking?
Well, 2017 is a prime number – the first since 2011, and the last until 2027. (Prime numbers are those numbers that are only divisible by themselves and 1.)
More notably, 2017 is the smallest whole number whose cube root begins with ten distinct digits:
20171/3 = 12.63480759….
Wowza! At this time of year, many mathematically curious folk spend time looking for satisfying number patterns like this one involving the new date. (Please add your favourites in the comments below.)
Just so you are not left out the fun, todays puzzle is to fill the blanks in the following equation, so that it makes arithmetical sense:
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017
You can use any of the basic mathematical operations, +, , x, , and as many brackets as you like. So, an answer might look something like (10 + 9 + 8) x (7 6 5)/(4 + 3 + 2 + 1) = 2017, although not this one since this is incorrect.
I do this countdown equation every year. Because 2017 is prime, it is a little bit more difficult that last years equation where the numbers had to equal 2016. In fact, there are only 652 solutions this year, compared with 890 solutions for last year, according to my computer programmer pal Zefram. (Many of these solutions are similar).
Got that? Now lets raise the stakes. Can you do the same to this equation, which is the same as above but with the 10 deleted:
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017
There are only 107 solutions to this one.
Now you have a taste for this puzzle, fill in the equation with the 9 deleted too:
8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017.
This one only has 13 solutions. Its interesting that each time we remove a number the solution space shrinks by a factor of about seven.
We have to end there, since there are no solutions when only seven digits are left.
I stipulated above that you must use only the four basic mathematical operations. But of course, if you want to show off, you can use whatever arcane or complicated mathematical operations you want.
I will send a copy of my puzzle book Can You Solve My Problems? to the person who comes up with the solution to any of the three above puzzles that I consider to be the most beautiful, creative or wacky. This could be one with, say, the least number of brackets required, or with the most ambitious use of mathematical symbology. My decision is final!
To enter either tweet your answer with the hashtag #MondayPuzzle or email me. Ill be back with answers and results at the end of the day.