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Statistics and Normalcy

erlipman's picture

I was interested by Lennard Davis' comments on the connection between statistics, ideas of normalcy, and eugenics. As a mathematician, I love how pure math is often exempt from being tainted by the biases that plague other sciences (though at the cost of being disconnected form the problems of society). Statistics is different than math, and like other natural and social sciences has the power to be abused. In defense of statistics, I think that what Davis fails to point out is that statistics in and of itself is not inherently a problem. A normal distribution in the mathematical sense is purely descriptive. The entities on the extremes of a normal distribution are not 'inferior' or 'extraordinary', they are simply subjects who have certain numbers associated to a charactaristic of theirs. Statistics can be used for good without imposing bias since it is a way of gathering knowledge. It is only when the language of statistics is wielded in favor of the biases of humans that it becomes a problem. Anthropology has been used to justify racism, sociology has been used to justify classism, and medicine/psychology has been used to justify homophobia/transphobia. It is scary when science is used to promote harmful biases because the general public is helpless to defend itself against the percieved authority of what those with technical expertise are saying. 

It doesn't totally make sense to me the way the problems that Davis discusses are entrenched in statistics. People tend to be stigmatized for being on one extreme of a normal distribution, but praised or still considered normal for being on the other. Davis does mention that dividing the data into 4 quartiles gives a ranking that ranks people in one extreme as the most superior and those in the other as most inferior, but which group is the first quartile (the highest values of the data) is not based on desirablity of a trait but simply the ways in which numbers are assigned to charactaristics. For instance being in the top quartile of IQ is considered good but being in the top quartile of weight for one's height is stigmatized.

Even so, it does seem likely, as Davis claims, that statistics has been used to advance biases, especially in the form of eugenics and disability in general, and it is possible that this bias laden weilding of statistics contributed to a broader cultural shift. Statistics, as with any science, s only as moral as those conducting it.