March 22, 2014

Facts and values

In a rant against `data journalism’ in general and fivethirtyeight.com in particular, Leon Wieseltier writes in the New Republic

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted. Up with the facts! Down with the cult of facts! 

There are questions of values that are separate from questions of fact, even if the philosopher Hume went too far in declaring “no ‘ought’ deducible from ‘is’”.   There may even be things we should or should not do regardless of the consequences. Mostly, though, our decisions should depend on the consequences.

We should help the weak. That’s a value held by most of us and not subject to factual disproof.  How we should do it is more complicated.  How much money should be spent? How much should we make people do to prove they need help? Is it better to give people money or vouchers for specific goods and services? Is it better to make more good jobs available or to give more help to those who can’t get them?  How much does participating in small social and political community groups or supporting independent radical writers and thinkers help versus putting the same effort into paying lobbyists or donating to political parties or individual candidates? Is it important to restrict wealth and power of small elites, and what costs are worth paying to do so? How much discretion should be given to police and the judiciary to go lightly on the weak, and how much should they  be given strict rules to stop them going lightly on the strong? Is a minimum wage increase better than a low-income subsidy? Are the weak better off if we have a tax system that’s not very progressive in theory but it hard for the rich and powerful to evade?

As soon as you want to do something, rather than just have good intentions about it, the consequences of your actions matter, and you have a moral responsibility to find out what those consequences are likely to be.

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Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »

Comments

  • avatar

    “There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men”

    Yes there is, it’s 1.

    “and the question of whether the government should help the weak”

    Also 1.

    “and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide.”

    Probably depends on other things.

    4 months ago Reply

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