Opinion: Why statistics are next to meaningless

Opinion: Why statistics are next to meaningless

In this post-truth society, numbers can be manipulated to prove almost anything


Photo: Shutterstock

Emotions and feelings are customarily excluded from intellectual or discussions. They are intangible, abstract and subjective and reflect nothing more than personal insights and individual experiences. Conversely, empiricism rules.

The law of empiricism states that the only way to gain knowledge is to experience things through our senses – to see, to hear and so on. This has arguably been the mainstream belief since the Enlightenment in the 18th century; we choose to trust scientific knowledge more than emotions and superstitious beliefs. A society that values and complies with empiricism is naturally obsessed with data, statistics and numbers – they have the most intellectual value and possess the greatest means of persuasion in every discussion.

However, the meaningfulness of statistics has diminished to a point that it is now little more than another form of subjectivity. From having supposedly intellectual discussions, I’ve realised that there are statistics and numerical facts for everything – for every political position, every popular belief and every argument. Therefore, they don’t mean much anymore, and they certainly don’t mean enough to prove that one position is correct and another isn’t.

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In 2001, American professor Joel Best wrote a book called ‘Damned Lies and Statistics’. He argued that statistics can be used to prove absolutely anything. Social statistics, especially, can be manipulated and used as tools to fulfil political objectives. As a result, truth is distorted. The highest, most almighty form of truth can be distorted, according to the wielder.

In recent years, many have argued that we now live in a post-truth society, where objective facts don’t matter as much as emotions and personal beliefs. This phenomenon is observable in the political sphere. What I have further observed is that people attempt to justify and strengthen their personal beliefs by offering ‘alternative facts’ that are highly questionable and far from objective. The truth no longer matters. The creation of one’s own truth matters more.

Injured police officers at the Legislative Council Complex in Tamar, Admiralty, during the anti-extradition bill protest on June 12.
Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

The news media helps sustain our obsession with meaningless statistics. Every time we turn on the news channel, we are bombarded with numerical information that is carefully picked and chosen to present a side of the story, rather than the whole story. Rarely do we encounter the complete compilation of ‘objective facts’. Consequently, our moral judgements are developed in accordance to the narrative that we are exposed to, rather than our reaction towards the truth.

Take the recent protests in Hong Kong as an example. There were live reports on the number of injured protesters from literally every major news outlet, but less coverage focused on the number and severity of police injuries. There was also relatively less coverage on the online harassment and death threats that police officers and their families have received.

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Having family and friends who work in the police force, my understanding and considerations of social conflicts are more reflective and multi-dimensional. I dare to see beyond the numbers that are chosen to create a specific narrative.

Statistics are important. But let us not be overpowered by our obsession with them. The reason we look at statistics in the first place is our desire to seek the truth, rather than a desire to create the truth we want.

To be truly objective, one must expand their horizons and look behind and beyond the numbers.


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