by the numbers

numbers

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”  -Aaron Levenstein

I’ve spent the past eight months trying my best to be useful—and trying to get paid for it. I arrived in New York City in October, a few weeks after the fall of the first big, public dominos of the financial crisis. Thousands were being laid off every day, and I was looking for work. I got my foot in a very specific door—web editorial work—and I learned that I’m actually a methodical, detail-oriented person, capable of handling large amounts of material and performing repetitive tasks without gouging my eyes out. I’ve gotten gigs up and down the length of Manhattan: big media corporations, small magazines, dictionaries, an investigative journalism outlet. It’s fun wearing my fancy pants one day and jeans the next, but it gets confusing, and it’s hard to feel wholly committed to anything. I know people who’ve done this for years; I’m already completely exhausted.  

Still, there’s something deeply satisfying about slogging through these enormous amounts of material. I spent months sorting through and fixing up 4,000 covers; I sliced and scanned old books of variant spellings and painstakingly compared “majors general” with “major generals.” I never knew how much I loved charts and lists and the act of quantifying qualitative information. I’d drawn pretty clear lines between the humanities and everything else: the former is all good books and beautiful music, and the latter is Microsoft Excel, or worse, PowerPoint—that Phantom Tollbooth boundary between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Any attempt to mix the two would be like the Pritchard scale of the “greatness” of poetry, or ranking art. But the web, at least the best, most innovative bits, pretty much destroys what was probably a false distinction to begin with.

In late December, when Harper’s Magazine called with 12,000-plus statistics and an ambitious web project, I couldn’t say no. March 2009 marked the 25th anniversary of the Harper’s Index, a monthly collection of 40 or so carefully fact-checked stats—to get an idea, check out the index from January of this year, an extra-long one to celebrate the end of the Bush presidency. The magazine’s editor, Roger Hodge, calls the index “a statistical poem.” The webmaster, Paul Ford, wanted to use the web to turn it into something else entirely.

The result was the searchable index, which launched a few months ago. Paul did all the legit technical work; I did the slogging I’m quickly becoming known for. I pulled all 12,000 stats from scanned pages, laid them out in a big spreadsheet, matched them up with their sources, proofread them, and marked the truly awesome ones–“Average number of peas in a pod: 8”—with a little X in the “AWESOME” column. The tool Paul built is clean, simple, and a whole lot of fun, and the taxonomy we created to sort and tag the stats kind of sucks you in—you find yourself randomly clicking things, heading from “cats” to “sexual assault” to “Mikhail Gorbachev” to “shlock” in minutes. And I finished the project with a strangely comprehensive understanding of the index, and at least a vague memory of every single stat in it. I’m hoping it will come in handy at parties.

I have friends—scientists, economists, finance types—who use numbers to look at the world every day; for me, it’s uncharted territory, and I find it both fascinating and unsettling. A few days into the index project, I created a little document called “facts to remember,” a collection of atrocities and injustices that seem so much more troubling when they’re expressed in plain numbers. One of the earliest is this one, from 1988: 

1987 housing stat

It’s easy to lie—or at the very least, mislead—with statistics, but still, there’s something starkly depressing about this fact. Sure, you can’t just stick homeless people in vacant condos, but imagining thousands on the street and thousands of empty rooms is frustrating and sad. In 1991, “Percentage of male college students who say that ‘some women look as though they’re just asking to be raped’: 84” Or in 2005, “Minutes that NBC and CBS spent covering the Darfur genocide last year: 8” A lot of the stats are confirmations of gut feelings I’d already had, but some are startling revelations. I take each one with a grain or two of salt, because I know that statistics are only an expression of a few numbers, not a fully accurate representation of a bigger story. But it’s that act of quantifying qualitative information, something I’d always shied away from, that strikes me the most. Ideas can be distilled into a set of numbers. It’s powerful: a little exciting, but still a little frightening. After all, numbers are pretty easy to manipulate.

Nonetheless, I’m still well aware of the fact that sometimes, numbers just don’t cut it. Earlier this year, “This American Life” re-aired their early “Numbers” episode, a collection of stories in which life just can’t be quantified: a couple takes quarterly report-style stock of their relationship; artists take polls to figure out exactly what people want to see in a painting. I’ve recently been helping some investigative journalists with a big foreclosure project, pulling original deeds on hundreds of foreclosed homes in Seattle and its suburbs. A search for a property might yield ten or fifteen results: a few owners, a few foreclosures, a bank’s intervention, a house changing hands in a divorce or a death. I’ll see half a dozen foreclosure notices, and I can’t help but wish I had more than just a list. Why did they take out such an enormous mortgage in the first place? Were they trying to make the payments? Did someone lose a job, or get sick? Or were they simply irresponsible? These days, hundreds of thousands of homes are foreclosed upon each month, but no number—the big statistics or the property data—tells me what I really want to know about the collapse of the housing market.

I don’t know if people who work with statistical data every day get bogged down by these questions. And I’m not sure why the powerful simplicity of some index stats draws me in, while just as often, the lack of human information leaves me disappointed. Are tragedies best illustrated—and more strongly felt and understood—with death tolls and casualty rates, or with individual stories of suffering? I think in many cases, it depends on both the person and the situation. And perhaps more importantly, on the telling itself.

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5 Comments

Filed under media, personal, the internet, work

5 responses to “by the numbers

  1. This tool is outstanding. Also, as a student of information science, I’m really excited that you spent the time to create a taxonomy and that when I search for “Microsoft” I get lots of statistics about Bill Gates that don’t mention Microsoft at all.

  2. L'el

    1) Nice Phantom Tollbooth reference

    2) It’s awesome that there’s an Awesome column.

    🙂

  3. Lissa– your writing is, as always, simply elegant.

  4. st. fleur

    I would have to agree with Marina. I actually enjoyed this, but that could be because I know you!

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