The facts in figures
These days, the numbers are everywhere. They appear in the daily newspapers. They make the headlines on the TV news. They dance the World Wide Web, popping up from the corners of your screen all the time. Your ward boy at the hospital doesn’t comment on the hot day or humid night, but insists on talking about the total number of cases yesterday, the positivity rate, the average number of cases last week.
You are immersed in a deluge of data: total cases, twenty-four hour peak, seven-day growth rate, doubling rate, mortality rate, tests performed daily, sensitivity and specificity of the various tests, infectivity rate , positivity rate recovery rate. There are curves that are unleashed; ascending and descending curves, plateau and flattening curves. And the changing recommendations for quarantine, for testing, for admissions, for discharge. Still growing gap between two doses of vaccine, at the rate of the misery of the nation. Drugs emerge as a promised panacea, only to shamefully disappear in a few days; faster than the besieged hopes of the suffering Indians. I only covered about ten percent of the essential data distributed for the benefit of hapless compatriots. Multiply this number by fifty for major cities and states in India and the most affected countries. You will then see the volley of bullets fired at the baffled citizen.
We Indians are not known for our love of numbers. We despise data-backed truth. We believe in a world where the line between truth and lies is not marked by unsavory and inelegant numbers. The veracity of a statement depends on the respectability of the person offering it. This analog world is a world of colorful emotions where no truth is sacred. Everything is relative in this wonderful world. The digital world of facts, on the other hand, is boringly populated with discrete blocks of lifeless numbers. How can numbers decide the veracity of an opinion? They do not support the long thread of survival that begins with “in my experience” and ends with “I can feel the truth of this in my heart”. These are the stories that generate faith. Fact cannot equal faith.
The data offers no opinion. They remain silent, like orphan words taken from a dictionary. Words must be placed in order, according to accepted rules of a language, to weave them into sentence and then a meaning emerges. Likewise, the data must be analyzed to form an opinion. Since the same words can be arranged in different ways to imply a different meaning, the same data can also be used to reach different conclusions. This was amply evident throughout the ongoing pandemic.
Data collection and analysis is a rigorous process. Statistics, the science involved, are barely a few centuries old. It is anathema to our minds which have learned to come to the truth by their own experience. This anecdotal learning process has evolved over two hundred thousand years. Our aversion to numbers, our fear of statistics, has its roots in the way our brains are wired. A pandemic cannot get rid of our nature which has evolved over hundreds of millennia.
The brain evolved to confer survival and reproductive benefits on the body that housed them. For over two hundred thousand years our ancestors lived in small groups. Each member knew each other intimately. The knowledge needed to gather food and hunt could be learned through personal experience and word of mouth from other clan members. Large settlements did not begin until the advent of agriculture, about seven to ten millennia ago. This led to the growth of large nation states, ruled by a monarch. For affective governance, the leader had to know their subjects: their numbers, their professions, their income. This required data collection. It was the start of statistics. But statistics did not develop rapidly until the advent of probability theory in the sixteenth century. This happened when man recognized the importance of chance in human affairs.
Probabilistic reasoning is counterintuitive. A brain that has evolved to navigate the world through intuitive decisions, cannot adapt to the tedious ritual and requiring statistical methods based on information. Even in situations of chance, it retreats by reflex on its old circuits which have served it well for centuries. But in unprecedented new situations created by the modern world, where uncertainty reigns on the perch, the brain goes into massive blunders. These conditions are varied: a fancy stock market that creates billions of dollars in minutes and wipes them out in seconds; thousands of remedies for a disease offering only minor marginal advantages over others; the bizarre science of matter, quantum mechanics; assessment of public policy decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
But the brain is a formidable decision-making machine. It is not easily confused. He learned ingenious tricks to solve problems beyond his ability. I will only mention two of the most used tips: substitution difficult question by an easier question and the ease of call back.
Is the new drug a good cure for the deadly virus? Do Indians have innate immunity against the terrible pathogen? These difficult questions are substituted by the easiest questions. Does this medicine work against other similar viruses? Does the mechanism of action of drugs seem promising in theory? Do countries with high corona infection have a universal vaccination policy for BCG vaccine, such as India? Wouldn’t the BCG vaccine, received by most Indians, make them immune to the virus? The fact that our political decision-makers are relying on this biased thinking is the cause of the current carnage plaguing the people of the country.
Most people believe that Corona is the leading cause of death in our country today. Corona infection killed around 3 lakhs of Indians in 15 months. Heart trouble kills around 2 Lakh Indians every month. (Corona and heart disease are two different disorders. I am not comparing them here, but I am offering an example of our biased decision-making apparatus). The mind arrives at the frequency of an event by the ease with which it can call back instances of the event. With headlines shouting CORONA in all media, the mind considers it the greatest killer. Heart disease never makes it onto the front page news or in prime time. And can not be recalled when determining the causes of death in the country. The terrorist violence in Kashmir is great news. Most people would think terrorism is the leading cause of accidental death in Kashmir. In 2019, 366 people were killed in violence while 447 died in crashes on highways.
I am not citing these numbers to convert the unstoppable agony of a death into empty and insensitive statistics. Each death brings to naught, a life of relationships, care, love, affection and millions of thrilling and living moments. But knowing the extent of a disease threat is important to planning effective public health policy. Statistics help us overcome the limits of our wonderful mind.
In our country, we are suffering the disastrous consequences of not respecting the predictions of scientific data. Our current government has a deep ideological contempt for scientific methods. He has an unwavering faith in traditional folk remedies. He despises data that does not conform to his ideology and his expectations. And he has no qualms about tinkering with, misinterpreting, and removing those dumb numbers to meet his narrow, short-term goals.
But unfortunately! Nature is indifferent to all human needs, it has no ideology, no goal, no objective. It operates according to its immutable laws. The relentless efforts of science sometimes open a small window for us to observe how these laws work. From this understanding, we design ways to alleviate human misery. Neglecting this science in favor of a rhetorical, sentimental and selfish mumbo-jumbo is a recipe for stupendous misery.
Statistical methods have helped improve the lot of mankind, whether in any area of public policy management. The tendency to be cynical about the truths these methods reveal is woven into the fabric of our minds. But one of the spectacular successes of modern science is to understand the mechanisms which generate this skepticism. These mechanisms are an insurmountable component of the mind’s complex problem-solving apparatus. And have served our species flawlessly for centuries. It is now within the reach of our mind to also understand its little flaws. The disbelief and horror inherent in statistics is part of it.
In some intriguing situations our mind is wrong, but luckily it is predictably wrong. We cannot rid our minds of these prejudices, but we can teach ourselves to beware of them. Public administrators, doctors, politicians must constantly remember these pitfalls, lest these instinctive decisions endanger the lives of those who believe them to be their saviors.
A view of the world based on facts is as beautiful as a view woven by our mind, intoxicated with its love for stories. We need to embrace it, to make some more sense of the chaos around us, as we make our way through the thick clouds of uncertainty that cloud our future.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
END OF ARTICLE