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Quantiphobia and the turning of morals into facts

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When stats-wiz and political prognosticator Nate Silver’s new venture, FiveThirtyEight, launched last week, it punctuated the rise of “data journalism,” journalism that incorporates actual numerical data into reporting and storytelling!  Silver’s star rose through his New York Times blog, which largely focused on political analysis and his ability to predict 50 out of 50 states correctly in the 2012 presidential election.  As a standalone venture, FiveThirtyEight, focuses on sports, science, economics, and lifestyle issues in addition to politics, and brings in data and statistical analysis to bear on these topics.  That Nate Silver can be heralded as a star, and that a site like FiveThirtyEight even exists is indicative of a culture that has grown increasingly (and thankfully) enamored with data.  Alongside data journalism like FiveThirtyEight, the it’s-everywhere trend of big data, the pervasiveness of infographics as a journalistic tool, and the rise of Moneyball-esque advanced analytics techniques in professional sports prove that quantification is IN.

Yet at the same time, the launch of FiveThirtyEight was mostly met with negativity.  Although the criticism (much of it summarized here) included some disappointment that Silver’s site didn’t do MORE with data, a lot of it to me smacked of quantiphobia, a fear or disdain of numbers.  Much of the backlash also seemed to respond to a proclamation Silver made to Time Magazine earlier in the month as to how he hires:

The x-axis runs from “quantitative” to “qualitative,” the y-axis (top to bottom) from “rigorous and empirical” to “anecdotal and ad hoc.” All FiveThirtyEight employees, he says, need to land in the upper-left quadrant of the coordinate plane, where they are quantitatively inclined, rigorous and empirical. The adjacent quadrant above the x-axis, Silver says, belongs to journalists like some of his former colleagues at the New York Times and Ezra Klein, most recently of the Washington Post. “People call them numbers whizzes, but they’re not that—just very good journalists.” The bottom two quadrants belong to the dregs of American journalism: on the left, sportswriters who cherry-pick statistics without thinking through them, and on the right, op-ed columnists. “That’s the crap quadrant. Two-thirds of the op-ed columnists at America’s major newspapers are worthless,” Silver says. He hates punditry, he hates narratives, he hates bold proclamations — and so too does he hate the media’s most willing vessels for all three.

An individual expressing fear, perhaps fear of numbers

My sense is that the “crap quadrant” hit too close to home for many, and traditional journalists tend to be wary of data moving in on well-worn territory of (in the Time article’s terms) punditry, narratives, and bold proclamations.  Indeed, in Silver’s opening manifesto for FiveThirtyEight, he called out fellow journalists, like Peggy Noonan, who predicted a Romney victory on 2012′s election eve because, in her words, “all the vibrations are right.”  A few days after FiveThirtyEight’s launch, a similarly quantiphobic response appeared in the New York Times, with the false dichotomic title, “Creativity vs. Quants.”  The article ignores a massive literature on the science of creativity to state that “creativity remains so unquantifiable,” while oddly using Steve Jobs as an example of someone who reached “Eureka!” without relying on numbers.  The point of the article is essentially that we can’t reduce a John Lennon song or an Oscar Wilde play, to numbers.  Sure. It’s the same point that a lot of anti-advanced-stats folks make in the world of sports about the inability to reduce, say, the beauty of a perfectly executed pick-and-roll in basketball, into a decision tree.

These arguments have existed at least since Mark Twain’s recognition of “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but they continued to bug me, and I began wonder where such quantiphobia originates.  My working hypothesis is that they make objective things that people prefer to be subjective.  In other words, numbers make things more fact-like, and facts can evoke discomfort.  My thinking on this stems from some research on which I have been lucky enough to collaborate, led by Jordan Theriault at Boston College.  The research asks the question of whether people represent morals (e.g., “murder is wrong”) more like facts (e.g., “2+2=4″) or more like preferences (e.g., “chocolate is better than vanilla”), and does so by scanning people’s brains while they evaluate morals, facts, and preferences.  Without getting into the details of the currently under review research, both neural and self-report evidence show that people tend to represent morals like preferences more than like facts.

Getting back to the issue of quantiphobia, my sense is that when numbers are appended to issues with moral relevance, this moves them out of the realm of preference and into the realm of fact, and this transition unnerves us.  Research on taboo tradeoffs, which I have discussed previously, shows that quantifying sacred values such as religion, national history, or human life leads to moral outrage.   Similarly, putting numerical values on issues that have a sacred or moral component to them, like politics to many and creativity, or even sports, to some, can evoke distress, especially when the numbers contradict our existing moral beliefs.

Where this gets interesting is that I think this suggests something for how we might choose to structure our arguments on hot-button issues.  For instance, if we intend to persuade others on issues such as abortion, climate change, or income inequality, issues with a moral flavor (and issues in which data journalists like Silver and his crew have begun to delve), we might think that presenting statistical data alongside our argument bolsters our position.  In Silver’s terms, presenting data can move us out of the “crap quadrant” and into the domain of rigor and empiricism.  However, the more fact-like our argument becomes, the more aversive and polarizing it is likely to be to anyone with an opposing attitude on the given issue.  My hypothesis, again a working one, is that making an argument with numbers is more likely to evoke backlash than making an argument without them.  I have just begun to collect data to test this hypothesis, and will keep you posted on what happens.

Photo courtesy of Bantosh via Wikimedia Commons

Adam Waytz About the Author: Adam Waytz is a psychologist who studies the attribution and denial of mental states to other agents, and the moral and ethical implications of these processes. Follow on twitter: @awaytz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Blueskyz 10:27 pm 03/25/2014

    Excellent read. Look forward to more on this subject.

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  2. 2. CLee63 10:55 pm 03/25/2014

    At the risk of using anecdotes and opinions to support your hypothesis I believe using numbers to win any but the most superficial debate is an art form.

    For the average person numbers are noisy. It’s no accident that the bestselling non-fiction authors avoid using too many numbers. Big numbers are utterly incomprehensible. Statistics, even when thoroughly presented, are confusing and are often construed to ones favor. And tragically, the simplest associations are interpreted as cause and effect. Even those rare math literate people will cling tightly to their cherished beliefs when presented with a mathematically accurate yet poorly presented argument.

    I do believe some of the inspiration to pursue STEM subjects is being overwhelmed by a cacophony of anti-science publicity. What gives me joy is to see a non-confrontational, storytelling scientist like Neil deGrasse-Tyson present the historical pursuit of science as a natural, rewarding lifestyle in the new series Cosmos. He succeeds even without emphasizing the phrase ‘billions and billions’ like his predecessor Carl Sagan.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:01 am 03/26/2014

    There is something ironic that the fact-based journalism is viewed as a novelty and unusual.

    Perhaps slowly somebody discovers that Americans view the news as concealed advertisements, and ignore most of them. “Global warming to destroy North Carolina” => “climate scientists want more grants”.

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  4. 4. SteveO 1:34 pm 03/26/2014

    I encounter something similar even in higher education. We help folks come up with their own measures of success, as long as they relate to their boss’ metrics. Even picking their own metrics and being held accountable to them freaks people out, and not only the ones who fear accountability. And when we start talking about using statistics to make management decisions, ay yi yi, the glazed looks…

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  5. 5. RobFromLoveland 10:48 pm 03/26/2014

    Rather a long-winded way of saying that people resist fact-based arguments that go against their cherished beliefs.

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  6. 6. Bee 6:44 am 03/27/2014

    I don’t know where it comes from, but Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ spent some words on how people don’t like to be outsmarted by statistics and algorithms. This seriously got me to rethink the use of quantifiable measures for scientific success. (I wrote some words on that here )

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  7. 7. dadster 7:01 am 03/27/2014

    But this goes against the concept of “case study”,the right royal trajectory to arriving at reasonable conclusions from available facts , feelings , perceptions and situation in a market study or morality study . Morality disconnected with trade and commerce is uninteresting hollow philosophy .

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