Statistics and Personal Responsibility

Illustration by David Vignoni.
Illustration by David Vignoni.

In Prelude to Foundation (Asimov, 1988) Hari Seldon invents the science of psychohistory that forms the basis of the Foundation series. This series presumes that human behavior is predictable by science, and that those predictions can be used to influence future history for the betterment of humankind.

The Foundation series itself was started in the 1950’s and is probably Asimov’s signature work, his masterpiece. Science-fiction readers probably remember Bicentennial Man and I, Robot and other short stories, but the ideas first showcased in these stories come to their ultimate fruition in Foundation.

Today, we argue about some of the themes of the novel. In particular, we debate the nature of responsibility versus determination. A major contention of the story is that people are best understood—and manipulated—at population levels through statistics. Hari Seldon finds it completely impossible to predict the behavior of a single individual. But with complex math he develops in the 1988 novel, he can predict the movements and trends of populations—truly immense, galactic populations. And armed with these predictions, he creates a safe haven and a path back to civilization after a predicted collapse of the galactic empire.

Asimov’s political assumptions or motivations completely escape this author. Some writers use their stories to push a political agenda (for example, I stopped reading Terry Goodkind when his novels became too overtly Libertarian in their themes and thus no longer entertaining or believable). If Asimov did, it was never obvious enough to bother me.

Nevertheless, this main theme still resonates in the political arguments of our day. The question is, to what degree is a person responsible for their condition? We can take two views of a person experiencing the conditions of poverty. On one side, we can say the person inherited a set of conditions and then failed to create a different set of conditions. They have the same opportunities as everyone else (“we all have the same number of hours in the say,” I sometimes hear from students). You can go to school, work harder, apply for more jobs, take more chances. Eventually, hard work pays off, and effort and talent are rewarded.

Or we can take the view that social conditions lead to poverty and suffering on a large scale. A history of slavery and persecution, a broken education system, poor prevailing winds in the economy at large, globalization, all create endemic poverty and wealth stratification.

If we believe the first case, then we argue against providing unemployment insurance and food stamp benefits and subsidized housing. We are angry at spending our tax dollars to help poor people (even if we are poor) because we made it and so can they, or we are going to make it if we haven’t made it yet. Sometimes the case is that we are poor ourselves and admitting that others might need charity is the next thing to knowing we ourselves lack agency at some level, that we lack the opportunity to succeed. This puts our own fate out of our hands.

If we believe the second case, then the solution to crime is a change in the social conditions that lead to crime. The solution to poverty is large-scale mobilization of laws and money to combat poverty.

The stats are pretty clear at this time that what we believe has little to do with what the statistics say. What we believe tends to be self-serving. The rich folk tend to believe case #1: wealth and poverty are our own fault. Poor folk tend to believe case #2: it is more to do with how you are born and who is in charge. The stats tend to support case #2—being cautious that stats can ONLY describe samples of populations, never individuals, and therefore cannot operate at the individual level the rich folk want to argue.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, and this where existential psychology bites into the meat of the matter. Somewhere between the things that are out of control and the radical-responsibility movements of the 80’s and 90’s lies the truth. We are thrown into this life and are free only when we are responsible. Some of us chase that feeling by refusing to be seen from the statistical level, going so far as to reject science and government completely. The opposite reaction is just as extreme and therefore likely just as harmful.

But Asimov was not wrong. We might be able to change the life of one person through hard work. But the lives of people, the overall trends affecting millions and billions, need to be understood and adjusted at the level of millions and billions. For the time being, social justice must be a statistical science.

— Jason Dias

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