on statistics and politics

I consider myself a relatively smart human, but I can be extremely dim sometimes. I’m nearing the age where I should automatically earn the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, but mostly that means I have a lot of life-experience. I do have a BA and an MA, but both in the arts so you can probably take that with a pinch of salt!

Coming from the UK apparently (and somewhat laughably) means wherever I travel people assume I’ve had a good education. I had a shonky education, mostly because my parents moved a lot when I was a kid – I went to eight primary schools and two secondary schools. This was fine for things like art and literature because reading and creativity can happen anywhere, especially with an illustrator for a mum (and reading was a great solo activity when escaping the consistent bullying from always being the new girl).

What this meant mostly for me was a complete lack of grounding in science and math. At one school they’d teach physics/biology/etc as discrete subjects, at another it would be general science, and then back to another with their discrete and more detailed subjects. In Math I’d be taught addition at one school then straight on to algebra at another, then back to subtraction at yet another… I have so little grounding that i don’t even know what I don’t know when it comes to the basics of either, something which has plagued me my whole life.

Given the current shitfest of economic and climate crises in the world, I’ve been wanting to try to understand more, to get some of the basics down in my head. But when your mind isn’t tuned to such thinking  – and all that math! – it’s not easy. Plus my memory sucks, so I don’t feel capable of articulating myself in debates, which frustrates me hugely.

Recently I was talking about this with someone, berating myself for not being able to remember the statistics that would allow me to sit at the table in these discussions. They said something which surprised me “You don’t need to quote the stats to be actively involved in the conversation, that’s someone else’s problem. You bring your own beliefs to those discussions, and who knows, if you can get them to listen you might teach THEM something!”. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since, and they’re right.

We all know the old adage of taking your car into the garage (especially if you’re female). A mechanic rubs his chin, sucks air through his teeth and says “oooooh, yeah, that’s gonna cost ya”. I’ve learned through my nearly 20years working with technology that the same can apply there too… but it can be reframed. You can learn code, you can run servers, you can take apart or build computers from scratch. You can change the direction of the conversation by having your own life experiences to add in to the mix. As soon as you realise the tech guy can be your best friend if you can show you understand – and care – even just a little, your life with them, with tech, changes.

I’ve been learning mechanics since living in the bus too – homeJames is in great condition for a 24year old and I fully intend on keeping her that way. The subsequent conversations I’ve had with (usually men) who ask about the bus (whereupon I quote her specs fluidly and with genuine passion) have been understandably entertaining.

But I’ve still struggled to find ‘my place’ within the sociopolitical, and especially economic, debates. I get confused by numbers. I get even more confused when stats quoted by one person are completely different to stats quoted by another (as beautifully illustrated in this article http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-tories-sums-correctly/19765). Where do these numbers even come from? Having run a couple of freelance ventures in two countries, a limited company in the UK and project budgets of up to AUD$2.4 million, I’ve learned that numbers are tricky in practice – they can be hard to control even for the most fastidious of producers! I have observed, and struggled with, how easy it can be for others to obfuscate… truth in numbers is relative, it seems. Stats are the worst!

Last night this thought rolled through my mind:

“Statistics are merely a way for self-confessed ‘smart’ people to control the conversation. We all have the right to reject their control and distraction tactics and bring the conversation back to what matters to us instead”.

For me what matters is morality, humanness… and we don’t have stats for emotions! I’m horrified by how inhuman the world has become (or maybe always was, I dunno, I’m just looking at the now). So in future, when I happen to be in conversations with people who spout stats at me, I’m going to try harder to reclaim that control, bring the conversation back to what counts. Not ‘how many jobs did x party versus y party create’ but ‘how are those employees actually surviving? – do they have any sort of quality of life? can they pay their mortgages, get to work via affordable and safe public transport or be able to afford to run a reasonably serviced vehicle? do their kids have the chance of a decent education, a reasonable income in a field they love, the freedom to choose not just what car they buy but their sexual preference?

Stats don’t solve problems, they fuel the ‘us v them’ bullshit. Governments spend so much time and money building their brands and living in their wealth culture bubbles they have no idea what’s going on in the real world. They’re so busy trying to look good they’ll do anything to obfuscate meaning. Change the numbers, redefine the parameters for the statistics, no one will notice… and by the end of the page anyone with a soul will be so damned confused they’ll give up and walk away… just like the less experienced at the car mechanic or those who don’t want to become geeks, they’re just trying to get their computer fixed. You’re not less intelligent than someone with more experience, you’re just less experienced. But I’ll bet you’re a damn-sight more experienced at something else that the so-called ‘smart person’ wouldn’t even begin to know how to comprehend.

Watching the UK head toward another election, another sad-assed, low turnout because there is NO ONE TO VOTE FOR ANYMORE… here’s my plea:

Get involved in discussion, ideally with strangers, people outside your social media echo chambers and your safe havens of offices. Go talk to homeless people on the streets, actively take yourself out of the city/town/village you call home and see how other people are living, write to your MP and demand the opportunity to thrash this shit out (no, that probably isn’t possible, but it should be!). Don’t talk at them, listen. Ask what their lives are like, what scares them, if they say things you don’t agree with, try to rephrase what they said so you know you understand them correctly. Listen, listen, listen. Then ask yourself what you really think you need, they need, the world needs. Sure it won’t help much – with no electoral reform there can be no real democratic choice any more – but at least you’ll be able to look yourself in the face in the morning and know you’ve tried to reclaim – and be part of – the debate.

But above all, be yourself, know your own mind, set the agenda for your own beliefs and choose a cause your heart tells you to battle (no one can fight them all). And never, ever, let anyone else make you think you’re less intelligent than they are simply because you don’t automatically swallow their rhetoric.

[originally posted on Known, January 3rd 2015]