On Beginnings: Part 10

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.


Representations of “truths” bolstered by statistical data need not be deliberately misleading to be subject to tendencies B.A. holder Darrel Huff called “statisticulation.”  Any data we might collect is a product of the question we ask, and the ways in which we seek to answer that question.  Of course we are “manipulating” the numbers – we can’t help doing so in the process of gathering bits we deem relevant into the little pile we use to build up notions of order, character, and causality.  Is there a way around this dilemma?  Depends on whom you ask:  Modern, silicon-based engines of technology, some contend, have rendered obsolete the traditional vetting cycle of facts – observe, hypothesize/model, test – by providing more precise methods of measurement and a vast interconnected repository for storing and sharing data.  Data no longer needs a model, in this approach – it can be collected and analyzed statistically by high-speed processors.  The “End of Theory,” as Chris Anderson opined in 2008, may be nigh, allowing scientists to kick back with a margarita while pattern-detecting algorithms process data that will autogenerate yet-unknown points of inquiry – no never-adequate scientific model required, in all its messy human-ness.  You could call this Big Data method progress.  You could call it a pendulum swing.  Or you could call it a waste of time to contrast to classical methods, since no one actually believes data is worth collecting for the sake of collection alone, with no defined mechanism for selecting and interpreting it.  Who would store all that?  Besides the NSA?

The ability to amass megascads of descriptive data has proven useful in many spheres of science and mathematics, whatever your opinion of its broadening scope.  These various articles suggest to me, though, that certain applications of The Truth-Revealing Power of Numbers generate, rather than a collaborative drift toward some “truthier” accord, the same sort of contradictory claims we might have made without the tremendous influx of data.  In the context of evaluating something as panoptic as the value of a college degree, the scope of a consensus may even seem absurd.  In that regard, perhaps the moot conclusions drawn from these studies are ends in themselves.  Or rather, as sociologist Jean Baudrillard suggested, both means and ends.

“That discourse ‘circulates’  is to be taken literally; that is, it no longer goes from one point to another, but it traverses a cycle that without distinction includes the positions of transmitter and receiver, now unlocatable as such.  Thus there is no instance of power, no instance of transmission – power is something that circulates and whose source can no longer be located, a cycle in which the positions of the dominator and the dominated are exchanged in an endless reversion that is also the end of power in its classical definition.  The circularization of power, of knowledge, of discourse puts an end to any localization of instances and poles….  Impossible now to pose the famous question: ‘From what position do you speak?’ – ‘How do you know?’ ‘From where do you get your power?’ without hearing the immediate response: ‘But it is of you (from you) that I speak’ – meaning, it is you who are speaking, you who know, you who are the power.  Gigantic circumvolution, circumlocution of the spoken word, which is equal to a blackmail with no end, a deterrence that cannot be appealed of the subject presumed to speak, leaving him without a reply, because to the question that he poses one ineluctably replies: but you are the answer, or: your question is already an answer, etc.”

If the question is the answer, why bother using statistical approaches?  Or collecting the data at all?

Part 11 coming tomorrow morning…