Tag: Politics

You Are The United Nations Secretary-General! Can You Use The Bathroom For 5 Freaking Minutes Without World War III Breaking Out?

This is the United Nations, the center of global diplomacy. Countries from all over the world gather here to bicker about their differences and get nothing accomplished. This may seem like a huge waste of time, but it’s actually much better than the alternative, which is World War III.

Yes, it would be very bad. Every human would die, and the Earth would become a radioactive cinder. World War III is one of the worst things that could happen.

No, it would be very bad. Every human would die, and the Earth would become a radioactive cinder. World War III is one of the worst things that could happen.

You are the U.N. secretary-general, the director of the United Nations. This is you.

Running the United Nations is a challenging job, but you know how important your work is. Without your tireless diplomatic efforts, World War III could erupt at any moment.

This is the start of a new day, and it’s bound to be a stressful one. You have just enough time for a soothing chamomile tea before you talk to world leaders and try to delay nuclear holocaust a little bit longer.

Soon the weight of the world will be on your shoulders, but right now, for one brief moment, you can revive your spirits with the calming taste of chamomile.

The second you swallow the tea your bowels seize up in knots. Number one and number two are stirring through your guts like a pair of incestuous pythons, angrily slamming against the walls of your intestine and bladder. What the hell did you just drink?

Oh no. You wanted to make chamomile tea, but must have grabbed the wrong box. You have to find a bathroom, fast.

Maybe you should do a little diplomacy first though, before you visit the toilet. You’ve already left the world unattended while you had your tea, and there’s no telling what mischief the countries are getting themselves into.

Diplomacy can wait five minutes. You desperately waddle straight to the bathroom.

While you’re in the bathroom, World War III occurs, and a nuclear shockwave obliterates New York City, which is where the United Nations headquarters is. You are instantly killed without even realizing there’s a problem. Soon every other city on Earth is also erased by nuclear hellfire.

Within minutes, a global population of billions is reduced to millions. The survivors struggle on for several decades, their numbers continually dwindling due to radiation sickness and famine caused by nuclear winter. The few that survive are often infertile from constant background irradiation.

Fifty years after World War III, fewer than 100,000 humans remain alive on the face of the Earth, surviving in scattered hunter-gatherer tribes. They eke out a tough existence on the toxic husk of the Earth, but even those hardened nomad bands are slowly killed off by the inhospitable wasteland.

Five hundred years after World War III, only two humans are left on Earth, a mother and her son. They live on the outskirts of the radioactive ruin of what was once called Cincinnati, eating cockroaches to survive. She dies of cancer when the boy is 10 years old. He lives the rest of his life alone on a dead planet, making up imaginary friends to keep himself company. He dies at the age of 49 from an untreated tooth infection.

This tragic fate befell humanity because you couldn’t hold in your feces for a few minutes before using the bathroom. It didn’t have to be this way.

You visit the conference room where ambassadors hang out to argue with each other. “Good morning, Mr. Secretary-General,” the diplomats greet you in unison.

Your stomach is rumbling like a blender full of rocks. You really need to wrap up this diplomacy stuff, pronto.

You deliver a long and eloquent speech on the importance of diplomacy, ignoring the furious writhing of your intestine. Unfortunately, you take too long. As soon as your finish speaking, your colon erupts in a geyser of shit. Liquid rivers of warm dung flow down your pant leg, over your shoes, and spread across the floor like the Exxon Valdez spill.

“Hey, the secretary-general just shit his pants!” screams the Belgian ambassador.

“Whoa, what a loser!” shouts the Japanese ambassador. “We used to respect him, but he can’t even keep his crap inside his body where it belongs.”

“All these years, we’ve listened to him when he told us that World War III would be bad,” says the Chilean ambassador. “But now that we know he’s actually an idiot who shits his pants, what if that means World War III would be good?”

Excited murmurs start to fill the room. “Yeah, World War III!” “The Big War!” “World War III would be good!” “Nukes nukes nukes nukes!”

The ambassadors ignore your desperate pleas and phone their home countries to tell them to start World War III. It doesn’t take long before a nuclear shockwave reduces the United Nations to radioactive ash, and you with it.

The French ambassador clears his throat. “Yes, we are about to go to war with our hated enemy England.”

Uh-oh, he’s lifting weights. This is a traditional form of diplomatic saber rattling that countries use to show their power. If he’s doing exercise at the United Nations, that means armed conflict could erupt between France and England at any second.

“The arrogant and imperialistic British have been hogging Stonehenge all for themselves. Why do they get to own Stonehenge? They didn’t even build Stonehenge, it was druids a long time ago. France should get a turn owning Stonehenge. If not, we have no choice but to start World War III.”

The diplomats watch you in puzzled silence as you struggle to control your spastic bowels. After a few perilous seconds you manage to resist defecating, for at least a little bit longer.

The English ambassador scoffs disdainfully. “How dare the devious French try to take our Stonehenge, when they’ve been selfishly hoarding the Eiffel Tower all to themselves for years. If France wants to do World War III, England welcomes the chance to best them in a contest of nukes. After we win, we’ll bring the Eiffel Tower to London where it belongs.”

With your blessing, England and France begin lobbing nuclear weapons at each other, destroying both Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower, as well as all their cities and buildings and people.

The destruction of two countries would be bad enough, but England and France were both NATO signatories. As soon as they went to war, that invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which declares that an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all and must be responded to with military action. All the other NATO members fulfill their obligations to defend England and France from England and France by bombing England and France. Attacking England and France invokes Article 5 of NATO again, which forces all the NATO nations to start bombing all the NATO nations that attacked England and France, including themselves.

You are killed in a nuclear explosion when the United States retaliates against the United States by bombing the United States.

Knowing that your bowels could evacuate the entire frozen package of hot dogs you ate this morning at any moment, you have to propose a peace treaty between England and France on how to equitably divide Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower, and pronto!

The British ambassador falls silent for a long moment, then takes a nude photo of the queen out of his briefcase. “This photo of the queen’s glorious bare body is one of England’s most treasured possessions,” he says gravely, handing it to the French ambassador. “England will not trade it for anything less precious than the Eiffel Tower.”

The French ambassador examines the photo for a few seconds. “She looks pretty good for her age,” he says with utter solemnity.

The British ambassador nods. “Yeah, she’s in her nineties. Not bad at all.”

The two ambassadors shake hands, signaling a new era of peace between their countries. Now that you’ve averted war, nothing stops you from running to the bathroom.

“The Mona Lisa is one of France’s most valued treasures,” says the French ambassador in a hushed and reverent tone. “We stole that painting from the Italians, and it’s ours now. Until now, we’ve had a policy to never paint on the Mona Lisa, but we would break that rule in exchange for Stonehenge.”

“Manchester United rules!” shouts the English ambassador. “They kick the ball very well. We’d be honored to have Mona Lisa become a fan of Manchester.”

The two ambassadors shake hands, signaling a new era of peace between their countries. Now that you’ve averted war, nothing stops you from running to the bathroom.

You sprint toward the toilets, using every ounce of willpower to contain the furious contents of your twitching asshole. The door of the U.N.’s bathroom beckons to you like a lighthouse in a storm.

You stride triumphantly toward the toilets, ready to drop your pants and destroy the plumbing. There’s no time to spare either, because shit is ramming against your sphincter like Vikings at the castle gates.

There are four stalls in this bathroom. Which one do you want to use?

Wow, you just offended a Nobel Prize winner, and you still have a runaway brown train chugging down your colon, next stop sphincter junction. And without your guidance, World War III could break out in the general assembly at any time. Better make this quick!

Which stall do you want to use?

You open the door to the first stall, and a young woman sitting on the toilet shrieks in alarm.

“Excuse me, this stall is occupied!” screams Malala Yousafzai. “What the fucking hell is wrong with you? Can’t a Nobel Prize winner take a dump in peace?”

“Well, fucking knock next time! Now get lost, so I can finish up in here and get back to a conference on the importance of women’s education in the developing world.”

The Dalai Lama is sitting on the toilet. “Suffering must be our teacher, not our master,” he says while smiling at you benevolently. There is a quiet continuous sound of trickling urine.

“You are filled with sorrow,” says the Dalai Lama. “Instead, be joyous, for the world’s beauty is all around you!” Urine continues to steadily trickle.

“Our needs and wants are roadblocks on the path to nirvana.” The sound of urine slows down to intermittent spurts, and eventually stops entirely. Five quiet seconds pass as the Dalai Lama smiles at you. Then suddenly urine starts pouring again twice as loud as before.

You drop your pants and seat your bare ass on the Dalai Lama’s naked thighs. In response, the Buddhist spiritual leader calmly takes a can of mace out of his robes and pepper-sprays you in the eyes.

The world is a painful blur. You try to fumble your way to the sinks to wash the pepper spray from your stinging eyes, but instead accidentally wander out of the bathroom into the U.N.’s hallway, right in front of an elementary school tour group.

There are shocked gasps and giggles from the students as you waddle around with your fallen pants, reluctantly shitting a breadcrumb trail of turds behind you.

Police handcuff you and throw you in the back of a squad car. You face some pretty serious charges. Shitting in front of minors will get you put on the sex offender registry, which will get you fired from your job at the United Nations and make it impossible to ever get employed again.

However, you’re never charged for your crimes. On your way to the police station, World War III happens, and you’re disintegrated by a nuclear explosion.

Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is sitting on the toilet. “Occupied,” says the brutal tyrant. “My bad, I should have locked the door.”

“No, they only killed one of my body doubles,” says Gaddafi. “I was at the United Nations for a diplomatic summit when my government was overthrown, so I decided to lay low and live in the bathroom here.”

“Sure, help yourself,” says Gaddafi as he stands and pulls up his pants. “Heads up, though, I just dropped a monster deuce, and this toilet is completely clogged. Sorry about that.”

The odor from the toilet is absolutely horrendous. Gaddafi’s dump smells like a combination of dog sweat and spoiled cheesecake. You flick the handle a few times, but it doesn’t flush. You definitely do not want to sit on top of that mess, but you need a toilet and you’re getting desperate.

You sit down on top of the steaming dung and defecate. It’s pretty gross feeling the polluted Gaddafi-water splash up against your ass cheeks, but at least you get rid of your diarrhea.

You have succeeded in using the toilet for five minutes without World War III breaking out, so congratulations! Technically, you win! On the downside, you get all kinds of weird diseases from exposure to Gaddafi’s shit, which is to be expected from someone who slept with thousands of prostitutes and sex slaves over four decades. A few hours after using the bathroom you start hemorrhaging blood from your anus and then die. After your death, there’s nobody around to prevent World War III, and humanity is eradicated by nuclear warfare.

If you’re okay with this, you can quit now and consider this a victory, but maybe there’s a way to take a shit and also prevent World War III from happening at all.

You open the door and find Bill Gates sitting on the toilet, but not actually defecating. The toilet lid is down, and Bill Gate’s pants are up.

The billionaire philanthropist is lost in thought and doesn’t notice you enter.

“Oh, hello, Secretary-General,” says Bill Gates. “No, I don’t need to use the bathroom. I just came here to think about all the strides the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made in the fight against malaria. The bathroom is one of my favorite quiet places to think about doing charity.”

“Sure, of course you can use this toilet,” says Bill Gates. “Unfortunately, not everyone on Earth has a toilet. And other unfortunate people have malaria, a serious and sometimes deadly disease spread by mosquitoes. There are over 200 million cases of malaria each year. It’s an enduring problem that I hope to fix in my lifetime.”

“Oh right, you need to use the toilet,” says Bill Gates. “I forgot because I was talking about malaria, a serious disease endemic in tropical climates. Combating malaria will require a threefold approach: 1) reducing mosquito populations by eliminating standing water sources and employing judicious use of pesticides; 2) developing effective drugs and vaccines to protect at-risk populations from malaria; 3) employing barriers such as mosquito nets to prevent contact between humans and mosquitos.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I will get off the toilet immediately so you can use it,” says Bill Gates while remaining seated on the toilet. “Diarrhea is also one of the symptoms of malaria, a serious disease that is sometimes fatal. Other symptoms of malaria include fever and vomiting. Over half a million people die each year from malaria, a grim annual toll that is too often ignored in the Western world.

“The good news is that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made huge strides against malaria, reducing deaths by 20 percent since the year 2000. Our scientists have made promising breakthroughs experimenting with recombinant protein-based vaccines, and we intend to keep funding grants to pursue that area of research.

“Eradicating malaria is a long-term goal, but an attainable one, that will require ongoing cooperation between government health departments and NGOs. By the way, didn’t you say you needed to use the toilet? Sorry, I got distracted talking about malaria.”

Bill Gates stands up and gestures at the toilet. “It’s all yours.”

You shit your pants because you let Bill Gates ramble on about malaria for too long. There’s no way you can conduct diplomacy like this. None of the ambassadors will take you seriously if you have sopping-wet shit legs. You have no choice but to go shopping for a new pair of pants.

You and your befouled pants squeeze onto a packed subway train. The other straphangers give you disgusted looks and inch away.

In your worst nightmares you never dreamed that you, the secretary-general of the world’s most esteemed diplomatic institution, could become a social pariah stinking up a train car. You pray the subway gets to your stop quickly so you can reach Macy’s and buy clean pants as soon as possible.

You’re traveling through a tunnel when the subway comes to a screeching halt. The lights flicker, and the car shakes as the ground trembles.

The train conductor’s voice crackles over the intercom. “Sorry passengers, this train is experiencing service delays because World War III just happened on the surface and everyone up there is dead. Thank you for your patience.”

You climb a service ladder to the street level and behold the grim aftermath of World War III. Charred corpses litter the streets amidst burning rubble. This is the exact kind of situation you tried to warn people about when you said World War III would be bad.

Fortunately, you managed to survive doomsday and become a nomadic scavenger. You spend the rest of your grueling life searching through the radioactive ruins of civilization for canned food and bugs to eat. However, in all your decades of wandering the nuclear wasteland, you never find a clean pair of pants.

“Don’t worry, I’ll squish it!” shouts Bill Gates. He runs out to the United Nations parking lot, hops into his car, and drives into your car at 90 mph, totaling both vehicles.

Bill Gates dizzily climbs out of the wreckage of his car. He has a long gash bleeding on his forehead where it hit the steering wheel. “I don’t see the mosquito,” he shouts out in warning. “I think it got away. Don’t let it bite you, or you might get malaria!”

You’ve successfully tricked Bill Gates into leaving the toilet.

You drop your pants and lower yourself down. The ring of the toilet seat feels cool and refreshing on your buttocks.

Just as you prepare to tense your colon and expel all the filth within, there is a loud commotion from outside the bathroom. You hear angry shouting. Someone screams, “If World War III is what you want, then World War III is what you’re gonna get!”

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How statistics lost their power and why we should fear what comes next | William Davies

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.

Illustration
Illustration by Guardian Design

To recognise how statistics have been entangled in notions of national progress, consider the case of GDP. GDP is an estimate of the sum total of a nations consumer spending, government spending, investments and trade balance (exports minus imports), which is represented in a single number. This is fiendishly difficult to get right, and efforts to calculate this figure began, like so many mathematical techniques, as a matter of marginal, somewhat nerdish interest during the 1930s. It was only elevated to a matter of national political urgency by the second world war, when governments needed to know whether the national population was producing enough to keep up the war effort. In the decades that followed, this single indicator, though never without its critics, took on a hallowed political status, as the ultimate barometer of a governments competence. Whether GDP is rising or falling is now virtually a proxy for whether society is moving forwards or backwards.

Or take the example of opinion polling, an early instance of statistical innovation occurring in the private sector. During the 1920s, statisticians developed methods for identifying a representative sample of survey respondents, so as to glean the attitudes of the public as a whole. This breakthrough, which was first seized upon by market researchers, soon led to the birth of the opinion polling. This new industry immediately became the object of public and political fascination, as the media reported on what this new science told us about what women or Americans or manual labourers thought about the world.

Nowadays, the flaws of polling are endlessly picked apart. But this is partly due to the tremendous hopes that have been invested in polling since its origins. It is only to the extent that we believe in mass democracy that we are so fascinated or concerned by what the public thinks. But for the most part it is thanks to statistics, and not to democratic institutions as such, that we can know what the public thinks about specific issues. We underestimate how much of our sense of the public interest is rooted in expert calculation, as opposed to democratic institutions.

As indicators of health, prosperity, equality, opinion and quality of life have come to tell us who we are collectively and whether things are getting better or worse, politicians have leaned heavily on statistics to buttress their authority. Often, they lean too heavily, stretching evidence too far, interpreting data too loosely, to serve their cause. But that is an inevitable hazard of the prevalence of numbers in public life, and need not necessarily trigger the type of wholehearted rejections of expertise that we have witnessed recently.

In many ways, the contemporary populist attack on experts is born out of the same resentment as the attack on elected representatives. In talking of society as a whole, in seeking to govern the economy as a whole, both politicians and technocrats are believed to have lost touch with how it feels to be a single citizen in particular. Both statisticians and politicians have fallen into the trap of seeing like a state, to use a phrase from the anarchist political thinker James C Scott. Speaking scientifically about the nation for instance in terms of macroeconomics is an insult to those who would prefer to rely on memory and narrative for their sense of nationhood, and are sick of being told that their imagined community does not exist.

On the other hand, statistics (together with elected representatives) performed an adequate job of supporting a credible public discourse for decades if not centuries. What changed?


The crisis of statistics is not quite as sudden as it might seem. For roughly 450 years, the great achievement of statisticians has been to reduce the complexity and fluidity of national populations into manageable, comprehensible facts and figures. Yet in recent decades, the world has changed dramatically, thanks to the cultural politics that emerged in the 1960s and the reshaping of the global economy that began soon after. It is not clear that the statisticians have always kept pace with these changes. Traditional forms of statistical classification and definition are coming under strain from more fluid identities, attitudes and economic pathways. Efforts to represent demographic, social and economic changes in terms of simple, well-recognised indicators are losing legitimacy.

Consider the changing political and economic geography of nation states over the past 40 years. The statistics that dominate political debate are largely national in character: poverty levels, unemployment, GDP, net migration. But the geography of capitalism has been pulling in somewhat different directions. Plainly globalisation has not rendered geography irrelevant. In many cases it has made the location of economic activity far more important, exacerbating the inequality between successful locations (such as London or San Francisco) and less successful locations (such as north-east England or the US rust belt). The key geographic units involved are no longer nation states. Rather, it is cities, regions or individual urban neighbourhoods that are rising and falling.

The Enlightenment ideal of the nation as a single community, bound together by a common measurement framework, is harder and harder to sustain. If you live in one of the towns in the Welsh valleys that was once dependent on steel manufacturing or mining for jobs, politicians talking of how the economy is doing well are likely to breed additional resentment. From that standpoint, the term GDP fails to capture anything meaningful or credible.

When macroeconomics is used to make a political argument, this implies that the losses in one part of the country are offset by gains somewhere else. Headline-grabbing national indicators, such as GDP and inflation, conceal all sorts of localised gains and losses that are less commonly discussed by national politicians. Immigration may be good for the economy overall, but this does not mean that there are no local costs at all. So when politicians use national indicators to make their case, they implicitly assume some spirit of patriotic mutual sacrifice on the part of voters: you might be the loser on this occasion, but next time you might be the beneficiary. But what if the tables are never turned? What if the same city or region wins over and over again, while others always lose? On what principle of give and take is that justified?

In Europe, the currency union has exacerbated this problem. The indicators that matter to the European Central Bank (ECB), for example, are those representing half a billion people. The ECB is concerned with the inflation or unemployment rate across the eurozone as if it were a single homogeneous territory, at the same time as the economic fate of European citizens is splintering in different directions, depending on which region, city or neighbourhood they happen to live in. Official knowledge becomes ever more abstracted from lived experience, until that knowledge simply ceases to be relevant or credible.

The privileging of the nation as the natural scale of analysis is one of the inbuilt biases of statistics that years of economic change has eaten away at. Another inbuilt bias that is coming under increasing strain is classification. Part of the job of statisticians is to classify people by putting them into a range of boxes that the statistician has created: employed or unemployed, married or unmarried, pro-Europe or anti-Europe. So long as people can be placed into categories in this way, it becomes possible to discern how far a given classification extends across the population.

This can involve somewhat reductive choices. To count as unemployed, for example, a person has to report to a survey that they are involuntarily out of work, even if it may be more complicated than that in reality. Many people move in and out of work all the time, for reasons that might have as much to do with health and family needs as labour market conditions. But thanks to this simplification, it becomes possible to identify the rate of unemployment across the population as a whole.

Heres a problem, though. What if many of the defining questions of our age are not answerable in terms of the extent of people encompassed, but the intensity with which people are affected? Unemployment is one example. The fact that Britain got through the Great Recession of 2008-13 without unemployment rising substantially is generally viewed as a positive achievement. But the focus on unemployment masked the rise of underemployment, that is, people not getting a sufficient amount of work or being employed at a level below that which they are qualified for. This currently accounts for around 6% of the employed labour force. Then there is the rise of the self-employed workforce, where the divide between employed and involuntarily unemployed makes little sense.

This is not a criticism of bodies such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which does now produce data on underemployment. But so long as politicians continue to deflect criticism by pointing to the unemployment rate, the experiences of those struggling to get enough work or to live on their wages go unrepresented in public debate. It wouldnt be all that surprising if these same people became suspicious of policy experts and the use of statistics in political debate, given the mismatch between what politicians say about the labour market and the lived reality.

The rise of identity politics since the 1960s has put additional strain on such systems of classification. Statistical data is only credible if people will accept the limited range of demographic categories that are on offer, which are selected by the expert not the respondent. But where identity becomes a political issue, people demand to define themselves on their own terms, where gender, sexuality, race or class is concerned.

Opinion polling may be suffering for similar reasons. Polls have traditionally captured peoples attitudes and preferences, on the reasonable assumption that people will behave accordingly. But in an age of declining political participation, it is not enough simply to know which box someone would prefer to put an X in. One also needs to know whether they feel strongly enough about doing so to bother. And when it comes to capturing such fluctuations in emotional intensity, polling is a clumsy tool.

Statistics have faced criticism regularly over their long history. The challenges that identity politics and globalisation present to them are not new either. Why then do the events of the past year feel quite so damaging to the ideal of quantitative expertise and its role in political debate?


In recent years, a new way of quantifyingand visualising populations has emerged that potentially pushes statistics to the margins, ushering in a different era altogether. Statistics, collected and compiled by technical experts, are giving way to data that accumulates by default, as a consequence of sweeping digitisation. Traditionally, statisticians have known which questions they wanted to ask regarding which population, then set out to answer them. By contrast, data is automatically produced whenever we swipe a loyalty card, comment on Facebook or search for something on Google. As our cities, cars, homes and household objects become digitally connected, the amount of data we leave in our trail will grow even greater. In this new world, data is captured first and research questions come later.

In the long term, the implications of this will probably be as profound as the invention of statistics was in the late 17th century. The rise of big data provides far greater opportunities for quantitative analysis than any amount of polling or statistical modelling. But it is not just the quantity of data that is different. It represents an entirely different type of knowledge, accompanied by a new mode of expertise.

First, there is no fixed scale of analysis (such as the nation) nor any settled categories (such as unemployed). These vast new data sets can be mined in search of patterns, trends, correlations and emergent moods. It becomes a way of tracking the identities that people bestow upon themselves (such as #ImwithCorbyn or entrepreneur) rather than imposing classifications upon them. This is a form of aggregation suitable to a more fluid political age, in which not everything can be reliably referred back to some Enlightenment ideal of the nation state as guardian of the public interest.

Second, the majority of us are entirely oblivious to what all this data says about us, either individually or collectively. There is no equivalent of an Office for National Statistics for commercially collected big data. We live in an age in which our feelings, identities and affiliations can be tracked and analysed with unprecedented speed and sensitivity but there is nothing that anchors this new capacity in the public interest or public debate. There are data analysts who work for Google and Facebook, but they are not experts of the sort who generate statistics and who are now so widely condemned. The anonymity and secrecy of the new analysts potentially makes them far more politically powerful than any social scientist.

A company such as Facebook has the capacity to carry quantitative social science on hundreds of millions of people, at very low cost. But it has very little incentive to reveal the results. In 2014, when Facebook researchers published results of a study of emotional contagion that they had carried out on their users in which they altered news feeds to see how it affected the content that users then shared in response there was an outcry that people were being unwittingly experimented on. So, from Facebooks point of view, why go to all the hassle of publishing? Why not just do the study and keep quiet?


What is most politically significantabout this shift from a logic of statistics to one of data is how comfortably it sits with the rise of populism. Populist leaders can heap scorn upon traditional experts, such as economists and pollsters, while trusting in a different form of numerical analysis altogether. Such politicians rely on a new, less visible elite, who seek out patterns from vast data banks, but rarely make any public pronouncements, let alone publish any evidence. These data analysts are often physicists or mathematicians, whose skills are not developed for the study of society at all. This, for example, is the worldview propagated by Dominic Cummings, former adviser to Michael Gove and campaign director of Vote Leave. Physics, mathematics and computer science are domains in which there are real experts, unlike macro-economic forecasting, Cummings has argued.

Figures close to Donald Trump, such as his chief strategist Steve Bannon and the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, are closely acquainted with cutting-edge data analytics techniques, via companies such as Cambridge Analytica, on whose board Bannon sits. During the presidential election campaign, Cambridge Analytica drew on various data sources to develop psychological profiles of millions of Americans, which it then used to help Trump target voters with tailored messaging.

This ability to develop and refine psychological insights across large populations is one of the most innovative and controversial features of the new data analysis. As techniques of sentiment analysis, which detect the mood of large numbers of people by tracking indicators such as word usage on social media, become incorporated into political campaigns, the emotional allure of figures such as Trump will become amenable to scientific scrutiny. In a world where the political feelings of the general public are becoming this traceable, who needs pollsters?

Few social findings arising from this kind of data analytics ever end up in the public domain. This means that it does very little to help anchor political narrative in any shared reality. With the authority of statistics waning, and nothing stepping into the public sphere to replace it, people can live in whatever imagined community they feel most aligned to and willing to believe in. Where statistics can be used to correct faulty claims about the economy or society or population, in an age of data analytics there are few mechanisms to prevent people from giving way to their instinctive reactions or emotional prejudices. On the contrary, companies such as Cambridge Analytica treat those feelings as things to be tracked.

But even if there were an Office for Data Analytics, acting on behalf of the public and government as the ONS does, it is not clear that it would offer the kind of neutral perspective that liberals today are struggling to defend. The new apparatus of number-crunching is well suited to detecting trends, sensing the mood and spotting things as they bubble up. It serves campaign managers and marketers very well. It is less well suited to making the kinds of unambiguous, objective, potentially consensus-forming claims about society that statisticians and economists are paid for.

In this new technical and political climate, it will fall to the new digital elite to identify the facts, projections and truth amid the rushing stream of data that results. Whether indicators such as GDP and unemployment continue to carry political clout remains to be seen, but if they dont, it wont necessarily herald the end of experts, less still the end of truth. The question to be taken more seriously, now that numbers are being constantly generated behind our backs and beyond our knowledge, is where the crisis of statistics leaves representative democracy.

On the one hand, it is worth recognising the capacity of long-standing political institutions to fight back. Just as sharing economy platforms such as Uber and Airbnb have recently been thwarted by legal rulings (Uber being compelled to recognise drivers as employees, Airbnb being banned altogether by some municipal authorities), privacy and human rights law represents a potential obstacle to the extension of data analytics. What is less clear is how the benefits of digital analytics might ever be offered to the public, in the way that many statistical data sets are. Bodies such as the Open Data Institute, co-founded by Tim Berners-Lee, campaign to make data publicly available, but have little leverage over the corporations where so much of our data now accumulates. Statistics began life as a tool through which the state could view society, but gradually developed into something that academics, civic reformers and businesses had a stake in. But for many data analytics firms, secrecy surrounding methods and sources of data is a competitive advantage that they will not give up voluntarily.

A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of liberalism, indeed of Enlightenment. The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of politics. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/19/crisis-of-statistics-big-data-democracy

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