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Associated Press/Photo by Nam Y. Huh

Number crunched

Media | Quantifying mankind adds up to a data-driven tyranny

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

Back in the heady days of the 2012 campaign, Democrats who should have been quaking in their boots because of their candidate’s rotten record and pathetic economy were buoyed by the predictions of Nate Silver of The New York Times and Drew Linzer of Emory University. Karl Rove and other traditional strategists were projecting a big win for Romney based on history and precedent, but Linzer and Silver calmly analyzed the data and came up with numbers eerily close to the final result.

Among the many evil consequences of Nov. 6 is this: the apparent validation of truth-as-data. History need not apply; old models no longer model. Numbers tell the story. Therefore, deep analysis of data is all we need to determine policy and set a course for the future. And speaking of the future, we’re moving beyond the old Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative dialectic. Some think we’re even moving beyond politics, a state of affairs most Americans long to see.

But not so fast.

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In an online article called “Programmed for Primetime,” writer and editor Bhaskar Sunkara dissects the “fetishizing of objectivity” common among a new breed of journalists. Rather than observing people, they analyze trends. Instead of long hours on the phone tracking down a story, they devour charts and chow down on stats. They’re partial to the adjective “scientific.” They shrug off political labels and see themselves as innocent of a worldview. Let the dinosaurs in Congress bicker and gridlock; the reporters will report the facts and move the nation inexorably toward a data-based, efficient society.

According to Sunkara, this trend began not with the computer age but with the progressive era in the early 20th century, when muckraking journalists started to position themselves above politics. They were prosecutors, exposing obvious evil and promoting obvious solutions. For them there was one valid way to look at an issue, and that was the scientific way. Differences of opinion could be boiled down to personality (as in, X wants to go to war because of unresolved doubts about his manhood, or more recently, X objects to Y’s policies because X is a racist).

We wonder why it’s so hard to talk about ideas and principles in today’s political atmosphere. Here’s one reason: To a growing segment of opinion-makers, there’s no such thing as an idea or principle. Those are outdated “models.” There is only information, represented by numbers, buttressed by polls and charts.

This is a natural—or scientific, if you will—outgrowth of scientism, the belief that measurable quantities are the only reliable truth. Two signposts pointed us down that road: Darwinism, which provided a substitute for God, and the obvious benefits of applied science to human life. But while enjoying our air-conditioned ride with a well-stocked refrigerator and surround-sound, we forget where scientism might take us: humans objectified out of humanity.

The new style of journalism and policy-making admits nothing but “facts.” No need, said Professor Linzer, “to go on gut instincts or intuition or whatever else the pundits are doing, when we have actual real information.” No need for philosophy—didn’t Stephen Hawking in his latest book say philosophy was dead? No worldview, just a landscape of quantities. The number-crunchers shall inherit the earth, but by that time it may not be worth inheriting.

Even while checking its pulse and counting its carbs and measuring its heart rate on a treadmill, humanity still operates on will and emotion. Unlike classic Marxists, today’s policy wonks acknowledge such things as will and emotion and claim to want the greatest happiness for the greatest number—the ideal goal of public policy, according to philosopher Peter Singer (who recommends infanticide as one way to achieve it). The department of Health and Human Services has even commissioned a panel of experts to quantify “subjective well-being.” Not far down the road: a Beatitude Czar.

“The greatest happiness for the greatest number”—of what? Men and women, or actuarial tables? The stated goal may be the full realization of persons, but the result can only be the Abolition of Man.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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