Statistics are Not Enough

About three hours ago I tweeted:

Upon first reading, my tweet seems to suggest that an overwhelming number of the American population did not vote for Donald Trump.  Those with a particular axe to grind against Trump might even use this statistic to argue that 80% of the American people oppose Donald Trump.

I actually ended this tweet with the word “discuss” because I wanted to see how folks on Twitter would respond to such information. I wanted to make a small point (perhaps obvious to some, but not everybody) about why we need humanists and others with expertise in the liberal arts disciplines.  So far 25 people have retweeted it and 38 people have “liked” it.

15 people took my call to “discuss” seriously and responded to the tweet. Here are some of those responses:

As several tweeters have pointed out, my original tweet was flawed because it assumed that all 325 million people in America were eligible to vote.  Some brought up other interesting problems with the tweet. But what I wanted to point out, and I hope that some K-12 teachers might find this useful, is that nearly all the responders interpreted my original tweet by placing it into some kind of historical or political context.  Some did so in order to correct me.  Others did so to provide deeper meaning to the tweet.  I have smart Twitter followers 🙂

This is what humanists do.  We take raw information like this and we make meaning of it. We situate it in a larger story.  We offer context.  We draw out implications.  We provide nuance.

My twitter community did yeoman’s work here.  Based on these tweets we can conclude that a large number of people did not vote for Trump, but the number of non-Trump voters was fewer than the 80% I proposed.   We also learned a thing or two about voter turnout.  And new questions were raised about the historical implications of my tweet.

This was just a little experiment with virtually no serious consequences for American life. Having said that, I hope, in some small way, that it reminds us of the importance of the humanities to the our democratic life together.  Statistics need to be fact-checked. But they also need to be interpreted.