Facts in figures

These days figures are everywhere. They flaunt themselves in dailies. They hog news headlines on TV. They dance on the world wide web, popping up all the time from the corners of your screen. Your ward-boy in the hospital doesn’t comment on the hot day or the wet night but insists on talking about yesterday’s total cases, positivity rate, last week average case load. 

You are submerged in a deluge of data: total cases, twenty-four hours’ surge, seven-day growth rate, doubling rate, mortality rate, tests done daily, sensitivity and specificity of various tests, the infectivity rate, the positivity rate, the recovery rate. There are curves that run amok; the ascending and the descending curves, the plateauing and the flattening curves. And the changing recommendations for quarantine, for testing, for admissions, for discharge. Ever increasing gap between two doses of vaccine, keeping pace with the misery of the nation. Drugs popping up as a promised panacea, only to vanish disgracefully within days; faster than the beleaguered hopes of suffering Indians. I have only covered about ten percent of the essential data being doled out for the benefit of woe-begone countrymen. Multiply this by fifty for major Indian cities and states, and the worst affected countries. You will then glimpse the volley of bullets being fired at the bewildered citizen. 

We Indians are not known for our love of figures. We are contemptuous of truth that is supported by data. We believe in a world, where the boundary between truth and untruth is not marked by the unsavoury, inelegant numbers. Veracity of a statement depends on the respectability of the person offering it. This analogue world is a world of colourful emotions where no truth is sacred. Everything is relative in this wonderful world. Digital world of facts is in contrast annoyingly populated by discreet lumps of lifeless numbers. How can numbers decide the truthfulness of an opinion? They do not sustain the lengthy life-sustaining yarn that begins with, ‘in my experience,’ and ends with, ‘I can feel the truth of it in my heart.’ It is these stories that generate faith. Fact cannot equal faith.  

Data do not offer any opinion. They stand mute, like orphan words extracted from a dictionary. Words have to be placed in order, as per accepted rules of a language, to weave them into sentence and then a sense emerges. Similarly, data has to be analysed to arrive at an opinion. As same words can be arranged variously to imply different meaning, same data can also be employed to reach different conclusion. This was amply evident throughout the unfolding pandemic.

Collection of data and its analysis is a rigorous process. Statistics, the science involved, is barely a couple of centuries old. It is anathema to our mind which has learned to arrive at truth through its own experience. This process of anecdotal learning, has evolved over two hundred thousand years. Our aversion for figures, our fear of statistics, have root in the way our brain is wired. A pandemic cannot rid us of our nature that has evolved over hundreds of millennia.  

Brain evolved to confer survival and reproductive advantage to the body that housed them. For more than two hundred thousand years our ancestors lived in small groups. Every member knew the other intimately. Knowledge needed for gathering food and hunting could be gained from personal experience and the word of mouth of other clan members. Large settlements began only with the advent of agriculture, about seven to ten millennia back. This led to growth of large nation-states, governed by a monarch. For affective governance ruler had to know their subjects: their numbers, their professions, their incomes. This required collection of data. This was the beginning of statistics. But statistics grew rapidly only with advent of the theory of probability in sixteenth century. This occurred when man recognised the importance of chance in human affairs. 

Probabilistic reasoning is counterintuitive. A brain that evolved to navigate the world through intuitive decisions, cannot adapt to the time-consuming, demanding ritual of information-based statistical methods. Even in situations involving chance, it reflexively falls back on its old circuits which have served it well for ages. But in novel unprecedented situations created by modern world, where uncertainty rules the roost, brain goofs up massively. These conditions are varied: a whimsical stock-market that creates billions of dollars in minutes and wipes them out in seconds; thousands of remedies for an illness offering only minor incremental advantages over others; the bizarre science of matter, Quantum Mechanics; evaluation of public policy decisions which affect lives and livelihoods of millions. 

But brain is a terrific decision-making machine. It is not stumped easily. It has learnt ingenious tricks to solve problems beyond its capacity. I will cite only two of the most used tricks: substitution of hard question by an easier one and the ease of recall

Is the new drug a good cure for the deadly virus? Do Indians have innate immunity against the dreadful pathogen? These hard questions are substituted by the easier questions. Does this drug work against other similar viruses? Does the mechanism of drug action look promising in theory? Do the countries with heavy corona infection have universal vaccination policy for BCG vaccine, like India? Might not BCG vaccine, received by most Indians, make them immune to the virus? Reliance on this biased thinking by our policy makers is the cause of the present carnage visiting the people of country.

Most people believe that Corona is the foremost cause of death in our country today. Corona infection has killed about 3 lakhs Indian in 15 months. Heart related disorders kill about 2 lakh Indians every month. (Corona and heart disease are two different disorders. I do not compare them here, but offer an example of our biased decision-making apparatus). Mind arrives at the frequency of an event by the ease with which it can recall instances of the event. With headlines screaming CORONA in every media, mind deems this the biggest source of mortality. Heart Disease never makes it to first-page or prime-time news. And cannot be recalled when figuring causes of mortality in country. Terrorist violence in Kashmir is a big news. Most people would think terrorism the biggest cause of accidental death in Kashmir. In 2019, 366 people were killed in violence while 447 died in accidents on highways. 

I quote these figures not to convert the immitigable agony of a death into hollow, insentient statistics. Each and every death brings to naught, a lifetime of relationships, care, love, affection and millions of throbbing, alive moments. But it is important to know the extent of the menace of a disease to plan effective public health policy. Statistics helps us to overcome the limitations of our marvellous mind. 

We, in our country, are suffering the disastrous consequences of disregarding the predictions of scientific data. Our present government has a deep, ideological contempt for scientific methods. It has an abiding faith in the traditional folk remedies. It is disdainful of data which does not conform to its ideology and its expectations. And it has no qualm in tinkering, misinterpreting, and suppressing these mute figures to suit its short-term narrow objectives. 

But alas! Nature is indifferent to all human needs, it has no ideology, no aim, no objective. It works according to its immutable laws. Relentless endeavour of science occasionally opens up a small window to let us peep at the working of these laws. From this understanding we devise means to mitigate human misery. Neglect of this science in favour of a rhetorical, sentimental, self-serving mumbo-jumbo is a recipe for stupendous misery. 

Methods of statistics have helped in improving the lot of mankind, be it in any field of public policy management. Tendency to be cynical about truths these methods uncover, is woven in the fabric of our mind. But one of the modern science’s spectacular success is understanding the mechanisms that engender this scepticism. These mechanisms are an insuperable component of mind’s intricate problem-solving apparatus. And have served our species unfailingly for ages. It is now within reach of our mind to understand its minor failings too. Inherent disbelief and horror of statistics is one of these. 

In some intriguing situations our mind errs, but fortunately it errs predictably. We cannot rid our mind of these biases, but we can teach ourselves to be wary of them. Public administrators, doctors, political leaders must constantly remind themselves of these traps, lest these instinctive decisions endanger the life of people who believe them to be their saviours. 

A world view based on facts is as beautiful as one woven by our mind, drunk on its love for stories. We must embrace it, to make a little more sense of the chaos surrounding us, as we cleave a path through the thick clouds of uncertainty that befog our future. 




Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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