On the Interpretation of Numbers

There’s a lot of rhetoric flying back and forth these days, some of it productive, most of it of the “Me, too!” or “You suck!” variety. Some posts, however, have numbers to back them up, which is a good thing. But numbers (statistics) require interpretation, context and understanding — they are not conclusions in and of themselves.  Here’s a case in point.

Going to this website we find the following paragraph:

“In 2018, law enforcement identified and reported information on 5,652,156 known offenders, meaning some aspect of the suspect—such as age, gender, or race—was known.

      • Of these offenders, 40.2 percent were between 16 and 30 years of age.
      • By gender, most offenders (61.5 percent) were male, 25.5 percent were female, and gender for 13.0 percent was unknown.
      • By race, more than half (53.9 percent) of known offenders were white, 27.4 percent were black or African-American, and 2.2 percent were of other races. The race was unknown for 16.5 percent of reported known offenders.”

So 53.9% of offenders were white, while 27.4% were black.  Given that blacks make up only 13% of the population, some people argue that this is, if not proof, at least powerful statistical evidence of racism — the preference of police to arrest black people more frequently than white people precisely because they are black.  Similar figures for incarceration (not arrests) might seem to reinforce that conclusion.

Others counter this argument with the observation that racism is a hypothesis here, not a conclusion, and suggest that black people commit crimes far out of proportion to their representation in the population.  Some of these, also, will claim that the underlying reason is their race, that black people are simply prone to commit crime.  By what mechanism might this be true?  Is it genetic/racial, or cultural, or both, and to what extent?

Is it in fact true at all?  It may well be that the majority of cops are racist and white, and just round up “the usual suspects” who happen to be their favorite target.  There are some who will claim this to be true.

It may well be, as some claim when faced with this statistic, that black people are systematically oppressed, and the poverty they face as a result is responsible for this.

Any of these may be true.  After all, we know that racism exists and has always existed. 

The point is, the numbers don’t tell us what to think, what the conclusions should be or even — and this is critical — what the questions  (or more precisely, the hypotheses) should be.  Reasoning about statistics is a tricky thing, and I don’t claim to be good at it.  But we all have to try to make sense of them, and we should do the best we can to be honest in our efforts.

A common position on the left, then, is that the above-quoted stats on crime are prima facie evidence of racism on the part of the police.  And others will add that blacks commit crimes because of poverty perpetuated by the white man.  These are valid hypotheses in the sense that they are plausible, and might be subjected to further tests, studies and observations.  In fact, this position (that it’s the white man’s fault, or racism, or whatever) is so common that most liberals automatically accept it without proof.  Done deal.  End of argument.

But not so fast, there.  I’m pretty sure that every reader read the stat above, because I entered it in bold so you would be sure to notice it.  I’d be willing to bet, however, that very few of you noticed the stat just above it which reads like this:

…. most offenders (61.5 percent) were male, 25.5 percent were female…”

Hmmm.  It seems like men commit crimes at a rate well over twice that of women.  What shall we make of this?

Well, if you automatically accepted one of the knee-jerk responses to the first stat, you’re going to have a hard time explaining how police (most of whom are male) prefer to arrest men, because of … what, sexism?  And then there’s the question of who is oppressing them to cause them to behave this way — women?  And then there’s the question of how men experience more poverty than women.  And although I haven’t done this search (yet) I’m pretty sure that the crimes for which men are charged tend to be far more violent as well.  Is it somehow in the nature of men to be violent and criminal?  How sexist of you to suggest that! 😉

So what am I trying to say here is this — there are many questions to be asked, and answers are hard to come by.  But it’s important to ask the questions, to ask them honestly, and to listen to possible answers with an open but critical mind.  It’s hard to do such a thing in this heated, quarantined, sound-bitten riot-torn world right now.  But we should try, because it’s the only sensible way forward.


 For lots of stats, check out this link

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