The Law of Small Numbers.

by rabbithasbrains

Statistics, and by extension the science of economics (I know, I know — I cringe too, when I hear the word “science” casually bolted on like that), is intended to take bundles of chaotic data — the buzzing aggregate of seven billion non-rational actors all moving places and killing each other and buying tennis shoes from Walmart — and condense it down to some discernible, supposedly meaningful, trends.  Clever observations are then shoehorned into grand pronouncements; academic careers are made, articles published, paradigms established, books minted.

Recently, as it happens, I read two such books: Harvard economist and urban-development advocate Edward L. Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier ” (excellent, by the way) and researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone” (pretty good; a little dry).  Both made reasonable arguments from robust datasets (heart-be-still) and gently nudged the reader into remembering the human experience which their respective assertions were built from.  To that end, I have just finished two other books in supplement: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo (stunning), and Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (again: reasonably stunning). The point here, much as it sounds like I’m just using this post to brag about my ample free time and excellent taste in non-fiction, is that the personal narratives that make up the later two books actually changed what I took from the former books. This may not be novel to you.  In fact, I’m sure there is some first-year Social Science course you can recomend to me, “Critical Theory of the Subversion of Cultural Hegemony through Personal Narrative” or whatever, and in that class there is probably some specific word from some specific academic discipline’s nomenclature that perfectly encapsulates my transition from thinking that mean averages represent mean experiences to thinking that mean averages are crude approximations of the variance and richness of lives lived and lives lost. Unfortunately my degree* is in mathematics, and we happen to have skipped that bit, so I’d like to say a few words about it.

The first coupling of books “Triumph of the City” and “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” expand around the counterintuitive idea that the developing world’s (I’m sure your course had something ripe to say about this term, too) urban slums are actually vibrant collections of the economically disadvantaged, grabbing agency by the scrotum and squeezing hard. Whereas “Triumph of the City” makes its point by colourfully detailing the slum-ridden histories of our great modern cities, coupled with correlations of mean urban vs. subsistence-farming-rural income, the later book is a vibrant accounting of all the personal hubris and contradiction and randomly-idiosyncratic-qualities that make us human.  Similarly, it’s one thing to be told by the authors of “The Spirit Level” that, on aggregate, we seek to better our positions in relations to the socio-economic position of the social class that surrounds us, and another to hear of the black M.D. and surgeon Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, émigré to L.A. in the late 1940s, being told by a coloured woman (“coloured” repeated here because the author uses era-appropriate terminology), herself a recent émigré from the U.S. south, that “I told you I ain’t gonna let no nigger doctor examine me.” Obviously, the contrast is stark. Resolving the disconnect between these two approaches, I’ve started reading my weekly issues of The Economist a little more skeptically (note, however [perhaps, embarrassingly], that all of the above books came to me via their recommendation [sorry]). Now I have a nagging voice in my head that reads every economic statistic as the mean averages of certain individual’s tenacity and others cowardice; certain individual’s opportunities and other’s breathless, desperate hardships.  As a result, I have recently devised a litmus test — a shitty one, mind you — whereby, hearing the statistical assertions of other’s, I ask: “is this true for the people I know, the people I love?” The Achilles’ heel being the small matter that I surround myself by like-minded friends with similar values and similar life experiences, and we live out our lives in a reasonably homogenous city, in a country of great privilege. Again, the books help.

Recomendations for further reading are graciously welcomed here:

*undergraduate, nothing too fancy.