The Numbers

When I asked my son why he majored in statistics, he said he didn’t want to be like me. I didn’t flinch when I heard this. My father was a matrimonial lawyer whose divorce of my mother became an emotionally agonizing, decade-long mess. I didn’t want to be like him.

I took a statistics course in high school and after that first 1-over-N-minus-1 equation (used to determine simple probability), I was lost. Yes, math could simplify reality into a series of possible outcomes, but that simplification was never certain. Why not accrue the adulation of science fiction fans everywhere (and, most certainly, sufficient financial compensation to wander the world, soak up fun facts, great experiences and great stories, as well as the enduring love and companionship of my high school girl friend) and write about the sense of wonder?

For the rest of my life, I created articles and books filled with the sense of wonder, for editors and publishers who thought it was a very good thing to make me work for as little as possible in compensation. I also worked for educational institutions who shared the same idea.

My son developed an astonishing success in theater. While I strutted and fretted my hour on the stage in high school performances (the cigar I lit up for a role in Guys and Dolls stunk up the entire backstage), he became an Equity actor well before his 18th birthday. In addition to learning far more than 1-over-N-minus-1 at Harvard, he developed an awareness of excellent scotch (a grateful alumnus donated the contents of a top-shelf liquor cabinet to the department) and is currently , he is gainfully employed in the analytics field, earning more in his first year than I ever earned in any year as a writer.

I’ll admit: one can find the sense of wonder in statistics, in that the process by which we simplify and abstract our lives (or that of someone else, preferably for the highest possible fee) can reveal unexpected outcomes. You can feel so good, so smart, so grateful for so many things that God and life have given you, until a statistic reveals that, compared to all these people you’ve never met (and never will), you’re somewhere in a ditch.

Or the opposite. I developed a hatred of standardized tests, mostly because I didn’t do well on them. I’d stare at those four possible answers and come up with ways and means that all could be correct. I eventually wrote a magazine article about how little standardized college admission tests reveal about anything, and won a journalism award for it. And then, when I thought I could “give back” to the world as a high school English teacher, I had to take a slew of standardized tests to get into a university masters-of-education program and, finally, get a teaching license.

To my surprise (and chagrin), I not only did well on the tests, I got a little certificate (suitable for framing) from one of the testing companies that, compared to all these other test-takers whom I’ve never met (and never will), I’m somewhere near the top.

It’s enough to make you want to develop a familiarity with excellent champagne!

One of the reasons I stopped teaching high school was a clash with a principal who believed in the “power of data.” This power existed in stripping away emotionalism and the sinking feeling you get when what you thought would go over wonderfully in the classroom is…not. Turn everything into data, observe what you’ve done and bring the lower end of the scale up in small, incremental steps.

This sounds simple, practical and beneficial, and it may have been for other teachers. But not for a guy who, from on-the-job training as a journalist, is used to asking questions and then finding holes in the answers. The biggest question for me was what, exactly, constitutes data? Is it the grades I give, or the grades my students get? Is it the contrast between quizzes, which are supposed to show how much students comprehend from what they’ve just been taught,  and exams, which reveal how much they’ve retained?

As a student, I never cared much about grades because the reward I got for following instructions (or merely putting your term paper in a plastic binding) wasn’t as meaningful as that mental light bulb that flashes when you learn something truly valuable, interesting, relevant and necessary. Alas, in public school, grades and standardized test scores really are everything, unless, of course, you’re the valedictorian  or captain of a sports team. What to me as a teacher was most important: a professional relationship with students based on trust, openness and compassionate desire to create as many light bulb moments as possible, cannot be adequately abstracted into data. This relationship should transcend grades which are co-relative: their meaning varies so broadly that they must not be taken as a measurement of a student’s ability, worth or potential.

What happens to qualities that can’t be quantified? My son would say that you can’t turn everything into data, but you can derive significant, sensible, actionable conclusions from so much other stuff that you’d better pay attention to what the numbers tell you, especially if you’re in business.

I agree. And yet, how we arrive at those conclusions is precisely what puts me in the ditch, or pops the champagne cork. Or so I learned from reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasurement of Man, a superbly horrifying history that showed how the reasoned, idealistic application of “objective” standardized intelligence tests did not eliminate cultural prejudices and superstitions about intellectual ability and racial inferiority. Rather, tests were used to confirm these stereotypes.

Or, as the artist Frank Stella enigmatically commented when asked about the meaning in his abstract paintings, “What you see is what you see.”

Alas, it’s not all about relativism. What you see (that is, perceive or understand) may not be reliable, ethical, equitable or true: we only think about where the rabbit was after the magician pulls it out of his hat.

Or, as I like to see it, we can get closer to a truth, but we’ll never quite possess it. The creation of numerical hierarchies with ditches at one end and popping champagne corks at the may not be the most vital thing to do on this earth.

But, as my father would say, it’s a living.