Friday, March 8, 2013

Context: it's how you use the numbers, not what they are

The normally extremely clear writer James Fallows (his terrific blog on politics, technology, and beer, among other things, is here) has posted a letter from one of his readers. The full blog post is here; the excerpt I'm interested in is:
First, our public policy discussion has become too wonkish, by being entirely focused on measurable outcomes at the expense of all others.  (Another example: the health care debate, the vast majority of which was about costs instead of the moral imperative of universal health care)...
It may just be the writing (to repeat, it's not Fallows' but a reader's comment), but this strikes me as an example of someone blaming the numbers, as opposed to the interpretation of the numbers, for the politics. Sometimes a mathematical model is our best chance of understanding what is happening in the world (even if that understanding is weak). But it's our interpretation of the numbers - the context we give it - that guides how we use them. Numbers are never just numbers.

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