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By Tom Cushing

Stats or Stories?

Uploaded: Feb 5, 2013

"Human beings," a famous paleontologist once said, "are the primates who tell stories." Indeed, as we learn more about tool use and moral behavior as practiced by other species, our stories and our thumbs may be our best refuge against the conclusion that we're not so special, after all. Our fond early memories include bedtime stories that transport, fascinate and inform us, in rituals as old as language. Who can resist images of wizened elders passing-on tribal legends at twilight, or the anticipation of Breaking Bad's final season, for that matter?

Statistics, on the other hand, are an acquired taste. They have a cold rationality about them, and we learn their rudiments in the means, medians, and, if we're advanced, standard deviations of dreaded math class. Paradoxically, stats also smack of dark arts -- such as conjuring conclusions about 300 million Americans from studying samples of a thousand-or-so respondents. We are immediately, innately skeptical -- who's trying to sell me on this, why, and what if that particular sample consisted of all outliers? (statistically unlikely, I know -- but I.don'

There is a reason for the saying: "figures don't lie -- but liars figure." And it's no wonder that candidates may retreat to the comfort of observational metrics like "crowd enthusiasm" in gauging their chances. Nor should it be surprising that casino magnates have hundreds of millions to lavish on their preferred candidates; we can't figure the (poor) odds, but we've all heard stories about folks who hit the jackpot.

By contrast, when we go to the movies or watch a play, we give ourselves over to the plot -- "willingly suspending our disbelief," and identifying with one character or another. I can still tear-up recalling when I screamed at the TV not to shoot Old Yeller. A tale well-spun excites the imagination and makes us participants, as well as voyeurs, and calls upon our histories and our pre-conceptions, as well as our actual observations to draw conclusions. There's nothing like a good mystery or cliff-hanger to get us firing on all synapses.

Commercials know this, and the best ones suck us in (but sorry, GoDaddy, 'Walter' was a nudje-too-far). Billy Beane and Paul dePodesta, the Grand Poobahs of applied statistics in the national pastime, knew it, too, when they recently regaled the Lesher Lecture Series audience with war stories that illustrated their inspirations and impacts on The Game. And you can bet the phenomenon will be on display in a few days when our President punctuates his State of the Union address with the story of a real, live American prominently seated in The Gallery (kindly hold the scorn -- All Presidents use that device).

So, what's wrong with this phenomenon? Nothing, really -- it even acts as an important reminder to those of us who may be tempted to self-identify as the Very Soul of Sweet Reason. You're not, and I'm not (quite). We forget, at our great peril, that we are really just swirling masses of emotion. But if we succumb to stories uncritically, we may mis-use their power and make policy mistakes. It's what psychologists call "availability bias." We over-estimate the probability of an occurrence because we can see ourselves in it.

We've all heard the satisfying story of the young Oklahoma mother with her baby and her Remington, on the phone to 911 as intruders tried to break down her door. This "good-gal-with-a-gun" fired away -- killing one bad guy and scaring-off the other. About half the population, Mama-Grizzlies all, can directly identify with that heroine -- the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief. But what does it mean for policy -- shall we arm all mothers with side-by-sides -- or assault rifles, because, as one of the more militant Mamas I know opined: what if the intruder had one? (Now, THAT's the availability bias I'm talkin' 'bout!)

The cold, old world of statistics, though, tells are remarkably, tragically different story. As reported in the nation's newspaper-of-record,

"...The cost-benefit balance of having a gun in the home is especially negative for women, according to a 2011 review by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Far from making women safer, a gun in the home is "a particularly strong risk factor" for female homicides and the intimidation of women.

In domestic violence situations, the risk of homicide for women increased EIGHTfold when the abuser had access to firearms, according to a study published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2003 ....Another 2003 study found that females living with a gun in the home were 2.7 times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun at home."

And more generally, a three-city study in the 1990s looked at injuries involving guns kept in homes. They found that "for every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were SEVEN criminal assaults or homicides, FOUR accidental shootings, and ELEVEN attempted or successful suicides." [emphases all mine

Those are terrible odds, but the thing we want to remember is Ado Annie and her shotgun. As the nation's conversation on the gun culture continues, we need to make space in our heads for actual data; the pay-outs in this casino are denominated in lives.

To paraphrase a great old TV story-line: "The stats, Ma'am, just the stats."