Statistically Insignificant

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Increasingly, we find ourselves living in a data-driven world. In some simple situations, data are easy to compile and interpret. How many copies of a certain book have been sold in a certain store? The number should be easy to establish, even if some copies were lost or stolen. But how many people read this blog? I don’t know the answer to that question. The blog has three self-identified followers, but unless one posts a comment, there’s no way to know which of the three reads this post or any other. And there may be more “followers” (I can dream), because people may hide their identities by not letting themselves be listed on a blog as its followers. Besides, anybody can read this blog once or regularly without self-identifying at all.

Even so, I think it would be safe to say that as a blogger, I am statistically insignificant in the blogosphere. Although I read a few blogs frequently, I am statistically insignificant also as a reader. In fact, in this world of billions of people, I am in every way, yes, statistically insignificant. I am a datum, just one, and so it seems I can be significant only if I somehow uniquely relate in some meaningful way to many data by, say, selling a lot of books, making a lot of money, garnering a lot of votes, or getting a lot of people to pay to see or hear me do something. Or, I suppose, by being accused of a major crime, especially murder, right?

No, not exactly right. It seems the accused is significant only until convicted. The person convicted of murder returns to being just a datum, one in a field of many. In a New York Times article on the resistance of prosecutors to DNA testing for the convicted, this appeal to data struck me as particularly outrageous:

In Illinois, prosecutors have opposed a DNA test for Johnnie Lee Savory, convicted of committing a double murder when he was 14, on the grounds that a jury was convinced of his guilt without DNA and that the 175 convicts already exonerated by DNA were “statistically insignificant.”

The illogic of the first argument against DNA testing for Mr. Savory is astounding, the callousness of the second revolting. But, then, considering the many daily uses of data to dismiss the significance of one person, one life, one worker, one child, I suppose this particular instance of the gross abuse of data is (you guessed it) statistically insignificant.

From a quite different viewpoint, Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a states:

FOR THIS REASON WAS MAN CREATED ALONE, TO TEACH THEE THAT WHOSOEVER DESTROYS A SINGLE SOUL… SCRIPTURE IMPUTES [GUILT] TO HIM AS THOUGH HE HAD DESTROYED A COMPLETE WORLD; AND WHOSOEVER PRESERVES A SINGLE SOUL…, SCRIPTURE ASCRIBES [MERIT] TO HIM AS THOUGH HE HAD PRESERVED A COMPLETE WORLD.

So, I leave you, my statistically insignificant reader, to ponder the value of a datum when that one among many is a human being.

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