On What Is

Apologies to Quine for cribbing his paper title. It seemed appropriate though.

I was curled up with a book, newly opened with all the thrills that attend those as yet unexperienced  literary adventures, and my interest had been suitably piqued by its curious introductory vignette of two old ladies who were starved to death in a crumbling house on an old plantation in Jamaica. The book, by the by, is Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica.

Things were going splendidly for my plan to get lost in said book, when in the transition from page two to page three, I became too indignant to go on without expressing an opinion. So now you know: I'm really a crotchety, anal-retentive, and opinionated old 20-something. New information? Does it matter? Anyway.

The fatal line:
That is the sort of scene which makes a deep impression on the mind; far deeper than the ordinary, less romantic, everyday thing which shows the real state of an island in the statistical sense.

If you read that calmly, please go back and read the last four words in a tone of outraged disbelief. Thank you.

WHAT the blue blazes is REAL about statistics? Pray, do tell, when was the last time you met an average human? Or an average family, with 1.7 children? I don't think we're yet calculating enough to take out shares in children, but even then, some families would have to own shares of multiple children to make up the difference, and I don't think the children would like that very much.

I mentioned Quine in the beginning: earlier this evening, I was skimming his paper "On What There Is," which expresses his preference for a clean, metaphysical landscape, cleared of such rubbish as "abstract objects." I'm not entirely sympathetic to his reptilian love of the desert, but I am sympathetic in at least this sense: if anyone would like to come up to me and tell me that statistics are real, I will laugh in their face.

This is obvious in one sense, being the aforementioned absurdity of talking about a .7 child. I hope that no one is foolish enough to think that .7 children exist, and if there are people who think that, I'm not sure whether I want to meet them. But in the sense that we usually take statistics—as expressing something true about a feature of society, albeit in a general way—I think that Hughes's formulation is a bit more the norm than the deviation. What is real is not the anecdotal: it is the mystical "average" experience.

On a certain level, it makes sense. We casually recognize that there is no one, single, objective point of view, that all experience is subjective in that each person brings his or her own back story and biases to the moment. Historians rewrite good and bad across the pages of the past, but yesterday's villain could just as easily be today's hero, depending on the script and the players. Amidst such a plethora of possibilities—converging here, diverging there—is it any wonder that we desire something stable to steady ourselves against?

But with statistics, as with the desperate straining of early modern philosophers to know the external, objective, independently existing world, there is often a tendency to dismiss the subjective and the anecdotal as inferior. "Certainly," we sniff, "that may be your experience, but 95.3% of Americans rate their stay at 4 stars or better when they book at Hampton Inn." Of course, it starts getting really amusing when statistics purport to measure more clearly subjective experiences, like, say, how comfortable people in Fishtown feel when walking down Frankfort Avenue at 3am on a Tuesday morning.

And isn't that essentially what Hughes is doing in the line I quoted? Trying to average out unique, subjective experiences? What else is this "state of an island"? Surely, following opening paragraphs that talked about negroes fleeing sugarcane plantations and planter-class women who were taught that being useful was low, and therefore not de rigueur, surely Hughes doesn't mean to talk about the flora and fauna of Jamaica or remark on the erosion of its beaches. While vines climb the porch and prop open the old front door, they are not there to speak themselves. They are, instead, representative of a very real experience of the decay of old hierarchies, human hierarchies, and those experiences cannot be anything BUT anecdotal, for no two people are liable to have identical experiences under a given system, whether that be a political oligarchy, a matriarchy, or, as is the case here, slavery.

Perhaps it wouldn't matter so much, except that as we try to subordinate the subjective to that attractive, illusory objectivity that statistics provide, we actually begin to change the ways that we see ourselves, whether we suffer from the sense that we aren't hitting the mark or we point to a statistic to justify our feeling of isolation as a member of *a* 1% (to be distinguished from the economic 1% here).

Even more concerning to me, though perhaps more of a dry subject, we make ourselves vulnerable to political reduction and manipulation. When we remove the element of individual human consideration, our circumstances become irrelevant: it is only the numbers that matter. But I suppose that boils down more to the creation of artificial categories and has less to do with statistics. Or are they related?

Also, have I been completely muddling averages with percentages here? Technically an average or a mean or whatever is considered a statistic too, right? I'm clearly too tired to be airing my grievances in this manner...

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