Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The book of numbers

I remember many years ago, a couple of people came knocking at my door. I seem to recall they were Jehovah's Witnesses, but I may be remembering wrong; it's not important.

"Do you know what the most popular book in history is?" they asked me, their way of starting up a conversation. This is the sort of conversation I enjoy greatly; not the theological conversation, which I also enjoy and of course they were aiming towards, but the conversation of interesting but ultimately pointless trivia.

"That's an easy one," I replied, "The Bible of course. Now here's a stumper for you: what's number two?" See how I did the very thing that so often annoys me (probably most people, actually)? I took their train of thought and switched it off to a different track so they had no idea where we were going. Next stop: Trivialand.

Actually, the funny thing about pointless trivia is that often enough, it's not even so vital that it's true, which, in thinking about the story lately, I realized that I may have been incorrectly parroting back what I had been told. I'm fond of asking the trivia question: "What's the only animal with four knees?" This confuses people, who mostly don't notice that most quadrupeds don't have knees on their front legs. The answer is supposedly "elephants", but I not only don't know if this is true, but I don't know if even elephants truly have four knees. I don't think they do, actually.

...and I'm going on a tangent again, and from a tangent off of a story about going off on tangents, at that! So, back to my first tangent, the one I gave the poor confused representatives of the Watchtower Society: I had been told repeatedly in college that the #2 book--whether it was supposed to be in popularity or influence or what, I do not know--was Euclid's Elements, an ancient textbook on the fundamentals of mathematics. Wikipedia says it is "second only to the Bible in the number of editions published", which may be the basis for its supposed #2 slot.

I definitely think there's something very significant in the fact that a math textbook holds such a vital place in world history. The average person may find mathematics a very dull subject, but it has been said, and I believe quite truly that "Mathematics is the only true universal language." Some people find it strange for a Christian to say such things, but I believe that even God cannot subvert some of the basic principles of mathematics. As Galileo said, "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."

Numbers interest me deeply. They have a power in them that people do not realize. I've worked for years as a computer programmer, not because I love computers, but because there's something in me that greatly distrusts computers, and wants to know as much about them as I can. Understand HTML, JavaScript, PHP, ASP, etc., and you understand how the web works. Understand mathematics, and you understand how reality works.

People shy away from understanding numbers and how they interrelate, but they don't realize the vulnerability it gives them. As a someone who has also worked as a statistician, I also understand that. Another famous quote is "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." People who control the numbers can have power over those who don't understand the numbers. Even my father, who was not good at math, understood the principle. He once told me, "I noticed there was a brand of soup in the local supermarket that nobody wanted to buy at 25¢. The managers of the store took away the 25¢ sign and put one up that said '4 for $1', and they couldn't keep the stuff in stock!" Lack of a basic understanding of mathematics clearly leaves one wandering in the wilderness of confused ideas. And manipulation of statistics can be even worse than this sort of amateurish manipulation of simple fractions.

Statistics is a "science" of mathematics that involves sometimes a process of incredibly complicated calculations and delicate statements of degrees of confidence that are actually quite precise and accurate. But most people don't operate on that level, and don't want to operate on that level, so statistics tends to come at people with a simple pecentage, or a cutesy chart; a method that tends to simplify things to the point of meaninglessness.

Case in point: a friend elsewhere on the web posted a link to an article suggesting that statistics show gun ownership decreases the rate of "hot" burglary, i.e. burglary that happens while the residents are in the house. Here's the article. Can you spot the problem with this? In the first paragraph, we are told, "In studies involving interviews of felons, one of the reasons the majority of burglars..." Now a citation is given, so the original study may show more, but here we are told about "studies" which may mean anything. When I was in high school, I was fond of bolstering my arguments in research papers by interviewing classmates and citing useful responses. There's no good reason to assume that's what's going on here, yet there's not really any reason to assume something better. As far as the numbers go, "one of the reasons the majority" is worded so nebulously I'm not even sure it's safe to say that 50% of the interviewed felons feel this is important. Of course on top of that, we also don't know if this claim holds true in real life. Some felons (and which ones? I assume these are felons who were caught; who knows if those who got away with their crimes have the same feelings?) may claim that they behave this way, but how do we know how they act in real-life situations?

Here's where the numbers come in, right? The numbers were compared to Britain and the Netherlands in the second paragraph. Questions here that occur to me are: How do we know that theses are reasonable comparisons at all? What are the actual levels of gun ownership in those countries versus the U.S.? Do criminals know the statistics before they approach a house to burglarize it? What was the computation used to come up with the number of 450,000, and assuming this is a reasonable computation, what's the current number? I mean, is this 450,000 "hot" burglaries that would have still ocurred, but would not have been "hot", or brand-new burglaries that simply wouldn't have happened? Are we talking about doubling the number of burglaries, or increasing by 50%? (For that matter, do you know that those aren't the same thing?) That last statistic of 30% is tossed in with no comparison to the other two countries, so what's the significance?

The most important question to ask, however, is whether guns are really the deciding factor behind these numbers. Another article my friend linked to pointed out that in Britain, many people are getting high-tech security systems for their homes, making it a necessity that burglars need to strike while someome is home. Many years ago, I remember hearing that the proliferation of "The Club" device for securing one's car was causing a rise in carjackings. Does that mean security systems are bad? I don't know much about the Netherlands other than the fact that drug use is much higher there. Could that have something to do with crime rates? Look, the conclusion that the article is trying to support may actually be true, but the numbers and info given are largely meaningless. How many people realize that, though? People love to say, look, I've got statistics! I am right! But who knows what numbers really mean, and who knows when numbers are misleading, whether intentionally or accidentally?

Our whole world is made of numbers. Numbers to count items, numbers to measure time and distance, numbers to represent complicated concepts. They're simultaneously the most abstract concepts of our minds and the most fundamental building blocks of concrete reality. They're powerful, they're meaningful, and they're there whether you try to understand them or not. Ignore their power at your own peril.


Anonymous said...

You need a "like" button here.

Brucker said...

I know it's possible to add feedback buttons to posts, because I've seen them, but I hate to be living for feedback. If anything, I'd rather start conversations. For instance, what did you like in particular?

(I'm looking forward to reading your linguistics article; linguistics is a sort of hobby of mine.)