The Need for Wisdom Beyond the Numbers
Numbers do not offer us wisdom. Numbers are extremely valuable tools, because they allow us to better understand the specifics of issues; however, relying too heavily on statistics and other quantitative data can distort the reality behind important issues. Aside from human bias, i.e. people cherry-picking facts and interpreting the data at hand to fit our views, statistics generally describe only a very narrow element of a particular issue while they can only be applied in limited situations. To boot, there are often times when the available research cannot directly answer our questions or has yet to ask the right questions. This means we must always use numbers as part of a broader approach to problem solving.
All people collect facts, including numbers and personal experiences, to enrich our understanding of the world. Whether discussing personal choices, such as the decision to eat at a certain time of the day or the probability of an earthquake occurring, living creatures look at events in terms of what we expect will happen based on our experiences and knowledge. Statistics are useful, because we do not fully understand the mechanisms of our universe. While these laws do not dictate what actually does happen, they do allow us to see what will probably occur and plan for what we think will happen. From fundamental quantum mechanical laws to socioeconomic phenomena, our universe can be comprehended thanks to the aid of statistical law.
Essentially, statistics bridge the gaps in our knowledge, understanding, and comprehension of the universe, so we can function without all of the facts. The fault of statistics is that they are incomplete. Although following a statistical analysis enables us to make a best bet, which can be wrong, a lack of a more complete picture is most harmful when we apply a statistical prediction where the underlying mechanism cannot possibly give us the answer we expect. As such, the more detailed our understanding of the universe is, the better we can use statistics. For example, doctors understood high cholesterol could significantly increase health issues, yet they did not know there was such a thing as "good cholesterol." This resulted in recommendations that vilified the incredible, eatable egg as a public health risk.
Meanwhile, researchers often isolate what they wish to study in order to better understand a particular subject by making assumptions. This means valuable data on various subjects are often limited in scope and tailored to answer very specific questions, not necessarily designed for use in reality. The 2008-2009 global market crash, for instance, completely defied economic models. This is partly due to the way economists approach the economy in terms of historic analysis while human behavior, the specialty of psychologists, is often folded into theories that assume people, whether knowledgeable or not, will tend to follow their economic interests. Individual behavior and government policy often complicate matters, so economists ignore them by making assumptions that do not always hold true.
Furthermore, the greatest hazard of relying on numbers comes when applying statistical facts in an improper fashion. This is something policymakers do all the time. Up to 2008, human realities pointed to an unhealthy economy of over consumption and shrinking wages, but GDP, stock gains, and other indicator of success suggested blue skies. With the medium income for 90 percent of Americans, which now means about 29 thousand dollars a year, shrinking by almost 4000 dollars from 1973 to 2005, increasing costs of living and consumer spending vital to the overall economy had to budgeted for somehow, i.e. loose credit. Policymakers and businesses failed in their economic pursuits to recognize the need for consumer spending can only be fulfilled if employees earn an adequate income to sustain their economic activities.
The overriding fault of economic models is that they do not predict the distant future, because they are built on historic events and their data is limited to specific indicators while we live in uncharted territory thanks to factors like globalization. The world is extremely dynamic and the data of the past do not always hold true. Trends revealed by numbers, shifts in wealth for example, give us an idea of what to expect; but, like all scientists, economists can only derive so much insight from data. When policymakers point to outdated environmental studies concluding a lack of consensus on climate change, they reveal their tendency to abuse data. When they simply state per capita spending on prisoners, who should be fewer and in need of 24-hour care, is higher than spending on students without presenting overall budget values, they distort the issue.
What makes numbers valuable is how we use them. Their misuse comes from a failure to recognize the assumptions made when acquiring the data at hand, a failure to recognize statistics are only pieces of a larger puzzle, and a human tendency to use numbers simply to make our arguments more compelling. In fact, asking questions on the limits of data can often be more valuable than the actual data. Most importantly, we must remember our goal is to understand the underlying mechanisms of our world and numbers can only suggest how those work. By developing a thorough understanding of our world based on what relevant numbers tell us, we can properly use numbers as tools. Wisdom comes from people who consider the context of numbers instead of simply relying on what research has revealed to date or cherry-picking data to manipulate others.