Tyranny of numbers

Published May 1, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Fr. Rolando V. De La Rosa, OP


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

It is a common saying that truth is stranger than fiction. But today, fiction is stronger than truth. Just look at the impact of surveys on our choice of leaders. It is a case of numerical “might is right.” Survey firms legitimize their findings by saying: “That’s the way it is.” But behind this statement is the subliminal message: “That’s the way it should be.”

This perversion of truth must have prompted Benjamin Disraeli to exclaim: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics!” Widely publicized surveys are no longer aimed at informing the public. They tend to manipulate public opinion and decisions.

Surveys are conducted using a minuscule population sample. One statistician said: “Of course, there’s the possibility of error because of so many variables involved. We do not pretend to replicate reality by presenting it in numbers. We just give you what is likely or probably true.”
But, as Benjamin Franklin wrote,“A half-truth is often just a whole lie.“ So, although most of us often smack our foreheads in outrage, surveys have become a substitute for enlightened public opinion.

In 1928, W. I. Thomas and Dorothy Thomas formulated the Thomas Theorem which warns us that our dependence on surveys can lead to horrific conclusions. It goes: “If you consider a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” Their classic example is the story of a man who heard a person mumbling some words. The man interpreted the words as curses and insults directed at him, so he killed the latter. Even if the words were not actually so, the murder was real.

If we apply this theorem to our computer-dependent society, we see terrifying scenarios like the one described by Edward Tenner: “If a computerized railroad switching system mistakenly detects a train stalled on the tracks, and therefore halts another train to avoid a collision, the mistake will indeed cause a train to be stalled on the tracks, thus creating a collision.” In Psychology, the Thomas Theorem has this morbid corollary: “If you believe that there is a disorder in your life, you are likely to create it.”

One graphic example of this is the way many of us suffer unnecessarily from the constant barrage of news regarding another Covid-19 surge in our country. The repetitious predictions of “health experts” develop in us a sort of a “negativity bias”, a well-known psychological quirk which makes us pay more attention to all the worst things that could happen. This warps our perception of reality as we conjure up worst-case scenarios which we fear might happen to us. In effect, our endless worries and anxieties reduce our immunity to disease, making us vulnerable to it.

The Thomas Theorem can also be seen in the way our elections unravel. In a world where the internet and the mass media have monopolized our minds, sensationalized myths, fake news, and blatant falsehood can supersede truth. Every day, the media and advertisers dish out a web of tales, audio-visual extravaganzas, and pseudo-investigative write-ups about the candidates whom they favor to win. Surveys translate these into numbers. People thus mistake reality for the survey results, the giant billboards, as well as the newspaper and TV ads that dress these candidates up as exceptional human beings who exude strength, intelligence, and integrity.

Fiction has a seductive force. But no matter how attractive, entertaining, or influential fiction is, it remains a LIE. Our fascination with it can lead us to degrading fantasies and illusions. It is time for a reality check. Truth is a bitter pill, but it is the only medicine that heals.