Your days are numbered

When statisticians go to heaven — here I am assuming as many things as they do, but let’s do an estimate all the same — the first thing they want is to check the accuracy of their results, exhaustively obtained back here on Earth. Well, not all of them: 13.72 percent ask to see something else first, but the Foyer Angels (FAs) are briefed to humour them, and so each gets to indulge his curiosity.

While statisticians generally make up one of the tamest groups arriving at the PG (Pearly Gates), some are startled by what they find. Population statistics, for instance.

“But we did a census!” I actually heard one cry.

An FA, by the name of Fred, commented on this. He said there are DDs (Demographic Devils) who are delegated by “the Boss” to scramble such figures. Sometimes a DD will refuse to interfere with a projection, however, because he thinks it is too easy, and besides, nobody believes projections anyway. He would rather get back to the racial and ethnic pie-charts, instead. Lots of people believe those.

Too, he has some interesting new business, re-sorting the females and males.

But this all happens back on Earth, as some of my readers already know.

“The epidemiologists make much sport for these little devils,” as one of the other FAs joked, while he was waiting for a new customer.

Fred explained. “It is an area in which every possible comparison is between the statistical equivalent of an apple, and the statistical equivalent of an orange. This makes every definition arbitrary, and deviations from the arbitrary add a cumulative touch. But the illusion of similarity keeps them going.”

I asked him whether this was often the case, in parallel professions. With his delight in double negatives he told me, “It is never not.” He said humans can’t even count things that hold still; imagine how inept they are when an unknown, but changing, proportion of members in each apparent set have become invisible.

Jim, the other FA, and something of a wit, added: “A large part of the little devil’s job is to avoid laughing.” He let me wait for the punchline. “If a human person hears him, the slip goes in his file.”

Fred giggled. “You should see what happens when they try to count birds, or gophers. It’s quite entertaining.”

Jim flashed off to do his “meet and greet” with a New Arrival.

Being sceptical, I began to wonder about these Foyer Angels. Which side are they on? It seemed to me that neither of them was up-to-speed with dignity and respect for the deceased.

Now, I had just read a piece comparing the last flu season to this year’s coronavirus numbers. The loitering FA told me:

“Compare the number tested for any disease, to the yield of dead. There are two valid ways to do it. In the one, everybody lives. In the other, everybody dies. That should be obvious. The art of statistics is to find a third way. Of course, there is none.”

Fred now had to go. But curiously, he was rubbing his hands together, with enthusiasm.

“I have a real treat today: I’m greeting a baseball statistician. But I’ve got a ‘spasmo’ ¬†I must get through, first, so I must be off.”

“You mean a heart attack victim?” I asked, somewhat appalled.

“That’s what he thinks,” Fred winked. “Just another boring actuary at the PG.”

Darn. I had wanted him to tell me how the DDs put census-takers wrong, but he was gone in a poof.

I did, however, buttonhole another spirit by a water cooler. (These are reserved for the little devils.) I had many more questions the FAs hadn’t answered. This hunched, rather bat-like, dark little fellow, was looking rather idle. He’d been reading the supermarket flyer some “PG” had been clutching. I noticed that the water came out between his toes.

“Do you ever get tired of your job?” I asked him.

He smiled, roguishly. The smile came out in an upward-pointed crescent, just behind his head. But otherwise no answer.

“What happens to the statisticians after they leave this place?” I inquired of him.

“Oh they don’t,” he said.