Bad Math and Other Moral Failings

Photo Courtesy: id-iom
Photo Courtesy: id-iom

By Chris Sick

Daniel Patrick Moynihan supposedly observed that one is “…entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” It certainly feels like something Moynihan would say; it has the texture of the sort of elbow-throwing insult an educated man would come up with. It is one of the most cuttingly polite ways of implying the person you’re arguing with is either remarkably stupid or an awful liar.

The phrase is well worn among the pundit class, a Google search returns a dozen or so opinion pieces that incorporate it into their titles from authors across the political spectrum. The central conceit of the insult is seductive – facts are solid, objective, they are beyond ownership and therefore, beyond reproach.

It’s complete and utter bullshit, of course, but that never stopped anyone before.

For an example of this, we could look to the Supreme Court (re)hearing the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. The short story version is that Abigail Fisher’s application to UT-Austin was rejected, she claims, because she was white. Investigations into the case suggest that she was simply less qualified than most applicants, and even of the 47 candidates admitted with lower qualifications than her, only five were black or Hispanic, 42 were white.

As the court heard oral arguments, Justice Scalia asked a ham-handed question about how diversity admissions might disadvantage students of color, by admitting them to competitive schools for which they don’t have the academic preparedness.

I’m being a bit charitable for reasons that even I don’t understand: Scalia’s phrasing implied that he believes all or most African-American students are incapable of the academic rigor of America’s most elite universities. And, for that, there was an instant pile-on from left-leaning media calling him bigoted and prejudiced and pointing out the racist overtones of his comments.

Most of which was correct, insofar as it responded directly to what Scalia said. That, of course, didn’t stop the predictable right wing media outrage from kicking into high gear and claiming both that Scalia was correct and liberals were ignoring “facts” in favor of feelgood diversity policies.

And, most important, both sides were able to draw on academic research to bootstrap their ideological insults. Scalia was referring to the “Mismatch” theory, popular in conservative circles, that states that universities admit too many students under diversity criteria, who then go on to have poor academic performance and are at a higher risk of dropping out before graduation. The original study has been both refuted and reaffirmed by subsequent research. Unsurprisingly, the findings frequently depend on the political orientation of the researcher.

Not that you’d know any of this from reading the reaction to Scalia’s comments. With rare exception, the overwhelming majority of coverage I encountered of the case and the Justice’s comments broke along ideological lines, and treated the empirical question as settled in favor of their opinion.

John Adams famously wrote “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

But, boy, we sure showed him. We are, it turns out, entitled to our own facts, if there’s a large enough body of research from which to cherry-pick.

And even when there is not, most people have never let that stop them. During the Bloomberg administration in New York, the New York Police Department searched hundreds of thousands of people, peaking at more than 685,000 searches in 2011. For all of this, less than 6 percent of stops ended in an arrest, and the American Civil Liberties Union reports that in 2011, 88 percent of all people stopped were innocent of any wrongdoing.

When defending the policy, then-Commissioner Ray Kelly conflated the policy with the low murder rate. In a fiery commentary piece, Kelly rattled off statistics, comparing the number of murders over 11 years before the policy to the number of murders during the 11 years of the Bloomberg administration, and ended his numeric tirade by declaring that “To critics, none of this seems to matter much.”

His critics, quite rightly, pointed out that murders had fallen both nationwide and globally throughout the same period, and that neither the murder nor overall crime rate fluctuated with the number of stops per year. They noted that the last 20 years had seen an incredible drop in violent crime; one for which social scientists still had no reliable explanation.

One more quote: Galileo Galilei is thought to have said “Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so.” This is the mentality behind the technocratic impulse that created the NYPD’s Compstat program, which offered the impressive-sounded statistics Kelly and subsequent police officials have used to bootstrap their arguments. It is predicated on the notion that all things are knowable and quantifiable.

But, again, it’s complete and utter bullshit.

Kelly and Bloomberg defended their controversial program by the numbers, but had no problem stretching and torturing the numbers to suit their arguments for the program. Likewise, proponents and detractors of diversity in college admissions can find impressive sounding research to assure their audience that they own the facts, but that doesn’t mean the debate isn’t ongoing.

Most troubling, this impulse to quantify and rely on facts as objective measures weakens our moral reasoning. This is how we find ourselves arguing over the efficacy of torturing terror suspects, rather than confronting the sickening morality of it. We argue for what works, rather than what is right.

But we live in a time and place where we can all be right; we are all – finally – entitled to our own facts and armed with all of the technology and information we need to find the ones that are most comforting to us. We can pretend that we are capable of measuring that which is not measurable, and that those measurements trump morality; that those facts are stubborn and immovable, and beyond ownership. But in doing so we are only deluding ourselves into unwinnable arguments and amoral analysis, and failing our better angels for bad mathematics.