Truth & numbers

According to the BBC, I was the 75,962,709,323rd human to be born on Earth. Our numbers have now grown to 83,445,892,578, or had when I checked their world population widget the other day, & entered my birthdate in the calculator provided. That would be something like 10 percent growth, in just the last sixty years; & I gather the population continues to increase at this breakneck pace, so that in the absence of apocalyptic events, we may well reach 100,000,000,000 within a century or two.

The numbers may be easily contested, for like all statistics in which the count exceeds what can be represented on our fingers (plus toes for the prehensile), it is based on raw arbitrary assumptions, themselves uncheckable unless by statistical means. Except, some of these “givens” are more basic & ironical. I infer, for instance, that the BBC birth number calculator must, for precision of count, unavoidably assume an original Adam & Eve, at a fixed point in time. (Why statisticians should be allowed to assume this, but preachers not, is one of those secular mysteries.) The Beeb machine must also posit that everyone born on a given day arrived at precisely the same moment, for it appears I must be tied for 75,962,709,323rd place with many who shared my birthday. Others may shrug at such things. I’ve given up on shrugging.

I was reminded of the dubious precision of statistics this morning, as I examined not my conscience but my supply of ready cash, for the purpose of deciding how much to drop in the church basket. I found only $15.34 in my wallet & pockets. But then a little angel reminded that $80 was stashed in the Analects of Confucius (by the page entitled, “Additional Notes”). My statistical assumption had been that all the cash would be found in my wallet & pockets. I’d been off by a factor of more than five.

Once upon a time I studied demography, at first for the purpose of excoriating the “population bomb” scaremongers back in the 1970s. The subject struck me as boring, until I was sidelined into historical demography, & discovered such authorities as Thomas Henry Hollingsworth. And while his Demografia Historica will by now be dismissed as a little dated, it is permanently astute. No one could read it without having his confidence in all past & present estimates of population profoundly shaken. And while modern census-takers have devised very extravagant methods by which to corral heads for a headcount, they rely on a ludicrously complex pile-up of crude assumptions to invent every confidently-reported fact about these people. The demographers flourish nonetheless, as prized servants of bureaucratic tyranny, which has found the number crunching of “democracy” very much to its liking.

(A correspondent in email serendipitously supplies this explanatory note from C.S. Lewis: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”)

My libertarian hero in this regard was Sir John Cowperthwaite KB CBE, financial secretary to Hong Kong through the 1960s, & perhaps the most significant figure in the recovery of the old Crown Colony from its condition at the end of the last World War. He pointedly refused to collect economic statistics. His reasoning was that, without numbers to play with, the “economic planners” would be at a loss. They were, & Hong Kong boomed.

But to mention him is to stray into questions of economic policy, which, like Cowperthwaite, I am against. How we live our lives is God’s business, & none of the government’s until we are reasonably suspected of a crime. Their job is to provide for our defence against rapine & massacre by foreign powers & domestic criminals, in return for modest taxes. It is an important job, from which they should not be distracted by their own alien & criminal propensities. Let it be added that Hong Kong was remarkably free of crime throughout the period in question, comparing favourably even to booming yet placid Tokyo.

Proving that last point would, to the modern mind, require a peacock display of statistics — not strictly comparable between different cities, but homogenized by inserting additional layers of raw arbitrary assumptions. At best, this would yield a result compatible with what people familiar with both cities already knew. (If it didn’t, the assumptions would be revisited & adjusted.)

The ancient alternative to this exercise in absurdity is direct human experience. The human, as every other animal, is alert to security, & learns quickly whether he is in a safe environment. (Though alas, sometimes, not quickly enough.) I, for instance, know with fair certainty, street by street, & without reference to statistics, where not to walk in my neighbourhood after nightfall. I also have a fairly clear idea of the decline in civility, overall, that has come as a direct consequence of police & courts whose focus has been shifted both culturally & legislatively from preventing crime, to advancing a social engineering agenda — with a constant eye upon statistical indicators.

The issue here is not cause & effect; or rather, not the mechanical details of the scientism of our lunatic social engineers. It is the fundamental question of good & evil. The individual may, in strict obedience to the Sermon on the Mount, sometimes turn the other cheek. But nota bene: this is a strategy for defeating evil. Other strategies include catching & gaoling thieves, & hanging murderous psychopaths. The point isn’t to analyse their numbers, but to deal with them one by one — ideally, without excessive attention to race, creed, & colour.

In the meanwhile, gentle reader may be wondering why I brought the cumulative population of the world into this, from the start. It was to show the one good use for statistics which I have found: and that is to blow away reliance on statistics. As Burke, & several others have observed, our human world is a compact, a “social contract” if you will, between the dead, the living, & the yet unborn. We, the currently living, are a small & shrinking minority. Yet we have responsibilities towards the whole, to fulfil & to project by our own moral actions. And to this end, the numbering of our hairs, or of the grains on the beaches, counts for nothing.

The numbers lie. Each one of these people — dead, living, yet unconceived — is an immortal universe. Each is the recipient & provider of justice, before & beyond worldly trade. Each will be held to account, at the Day of Judgement, when the complete record is set before us, to our inevitable surprise; when, as it were, our whole lives flash before our eyes. It is in our personal & collective interest to bear this superlative Truth in mind, & not a phantasia of unknowable & irrelevant numerological epiphenomena.