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An essay by Robert Lynd

On The Beauty Of Statistics

Title:     On The Beauty Of Statistics
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

One of the most unexpected pages in Sir Edward Cook's Life of Florence Nightingale, is that in which he describes Miss Nightingale, in a phrase Lord Goschen once used about himself, as a "passionate statistician." Somehow one did not associate statistics with Florence Nightingale. She had already taken her place in the sentimental history of the world as the angel of the wounded soldier. It is a disturbance to one's preconceptions to be asked to regard her as the angel among the Blue Books. As Sir Edward Cook reveals her to us, however, she is ardent in the pursuit of figures as other women in pursuit of a figure. We read how she helped one of the General Secretaries of the International Statistical Congress of 1860 to draw up the programme for the section dealing with sanitary statistics, at which, indeed, her own pet scheme for uniform hospital statistics was the chief subject of discussion. Her faith in statistics, however, went far beyond that of statistical congresses. She believed that statistics were in a measure the voice of God. "The laws of God were the laws of life, and these were ascertainable by careful, and especially by statistical, inquiry." That is how Sir Edward Cook explains his remark that her passion for statistics was "even a religious passion."

It is by no means to be wondered at that the religion of statistics made its appearance in the nineteenth century. The surprising thing is, that no church has yet been founded in its honour. In the history of religion, philosophy and magic, numbers have again and again played a leading part; and what are statistics but numbers on regimental parade? Pythagoras found in number the ultimate principle of creation. Xenocrates went a step farther when he defined the soul as "a number which moves itself." To the unphilosophical reader the definition of Xenocrates is the merest riddle till one realises that he was probably trying to destroy the idea that the soul was something material, a fact of space, as might be connoted by words like "thing" or "living being." This is why, in order to express the soul, it was necessary to use an abstraction; and what so abstract as number? Nor did the numerical explanation of the universe stop here. "Pure reason," Gomperz tells us, in speaking of the Pythagoreans in Greek Thinkers, "was assimilated to unity, knowledge to duality, opinion to triplicity, sense-perception to quadruplicity." What a jargon it all seems--a game of the intellect! But the heavenly arithmetic has lingered in the world to our own day, and among simple people, too.

The mystery of numbers has entered into folklore as well as into philosophy, as that fine jingle, "Green grow the rushes, O!" which survives in half a dozen English counties, shows. It has always seemed to me the perfect expression of the fantastic lyricism of numbers:

I'll sing you one O!
Green grow the rushes O!
What is your one O?

And so on till we reach the number twelve in the catalogue of holy delights:

Twelve are the twelve apostles;
Eleven, eleven went up to heaven;
Ten are the ten commandments;
Nine are the bright shiners;
Eight are the bold rainers:
Seven, seven are the stars in heaven;
Six are the proud walkers;
Five are the symbols at your door;
Four are the gospelmakers;
Three, three is the rivals;
Two, two is the lilywhite boys,
Clothed all in green, O!
One is one and all alone
And ever more shall be so.

What it all means is for the folklorists to dispute about. It is interesting in the present connection chiefly as the ruins of an arithmetical statement of the mysteries of the universe. Similar chants of number are known in all religions. They are common to Christianity, Mohammedanism and Judaism. One is told that, on the night of the Passover, Jewish families chant a list of numbers, beginning "Who knoweth One?" and going on to "Who knoweth thirteen?" with its answer:

I, saith Israel, know thirteen: Thirteen divine attributes--twelve tribes--eleven stars--ten commandments--nine months preceding childbirth--eight days preceding circumcision--seven days of the week--six books of the Mishnah--five books of the Law--four matrons--three patriarchs--two tables of the covenant--but One is our God, who is over the heavens and the earth.

This list may be regarded as a mere aid to memory, and no doubt it is to some extent that. But it is also an example of the religious use of numbers--a use which has given various numbers a magic significance. One has an example of this magic significance in the custom, among those who resort to holy wells, of walking round the well nine times in the opposite direction to the sun. One always has to do things by threes or sevens or nines. Similarly, the belief in the maleficent power of thirteen is commoner in London than in Patagonia, where, indeed, they do not know how to count up to thirteen. One remembers, too, how in recent years the prophetic sort of evangelical Christians were on the look out for some great statesman or conqueror upon whom they could fix the dreaded number of the Antichrist, 666. First it was Napoleon; later it was Gladstone, the letters of whose name, if you slightly misspelt it in Greek, stood for numbers which added up to the awful total. I recall the relief with which in my own childhood I discovered the fact that, however wrongly my name was spelt, and in whatever language, it was not possible to work out 666 as the answer.

So much for the mysteries of numbers. To most people the whole thing will appear a chronicle of superstitions, as astrology does. But, just as astronomy has taken the place of the superstitions of the stars, so statistics has taken the place of the superstitions of numbers. It is as though men had suspected all along that stars and numbers had some significance beyond their immediate use and beauty, but for hundreds of years they could only guess what it was. It was not till the eighteenth century indeed that the science of statistics was discovered--under its present name, at least--and ever since then men have been debating whether it is a science or only a method. Whichever you prefer to call it, it may be described as an explanation of human society in terms of number. It is the discovery of the most efficient symbols that have yet been invented for the realistic portraiture of men in the mass. Symbols, I say advisedly, for statistics is more closely allied to Oriental than to Western art in that it avoids the direct imitation of life and appeals to the imagination through conventional figures. Perhaps it is a certain suspicion of Orientalism that accounts for the fanatical hatred of statistics which still exists among many of the apostles of the West. For statistics is a new thing which has had to fight as desperately for recognition as Impressionist art or Wagnerian opera. Infuriated Victorians still speak of "lies, damned lies, and statistics," as the three degrees of wickedness; and the statistician is denounced in superlatives as a sort of gaoler of humanity, who would give us all numbers instead of names. Now, I am not concerned to defend bad statisticians any more than bad artists. Statistics has its charlatans, its bounders after a new thing, as well as its Da Vincis and its Michelangelos. Or, perhaps it is more comparable to music than to painting or sculpture. The philosophy of number is the philosophy of proportion, of harmony, of rhythm, and statistics is the study of the proportions, harmonies, rhythms of society. Music and poetry, it should be remembered, are both an affair of number. "I lisped in numbers," said the poet, "for the numbers came." And the statistician has the same apology. Statistics, of course, is largely concerned, like the arts, with the disharmonies of life, but it deals with them in terms of harmony. It is a method of asserting order amid chaos, and that is why the lovers of chaos attempt to spread the idea among the people that statistics is a dangerous innovation, a black-coated tyranny. That is why landlords who benefit by the social chaos have fought so hard against the valuation of land, and churches against the registration of ecclesiastical property. Similarly, there was a middle-class party that denounced the income tax because it would mean a statistical inquest into the wealth of manufacturers and shopkeepers. Among savage tribes, we are told, it is a common custom to hide one's name, because those who know one's name have a magic power over one's soul. Similarly, in civilised societies, the rich man likes to hide his number. He knows that in some way the knowledge of this will give society a new control over him. It is possible to ignore all the evils of monopolised riches till one knows the numbers of the rich. To many people it is a turning-point in social and political belief to discover such a fact as that, of the total income of Great Britain and Ireland in 1908,

5,500,000 people received L909,000,000,


39,000,000 people received L935,000,000.

In other words, the fact that one-half of the wealth of Great Britain and Ireland goes to the twelve per cent. of the population who belong to the class with incomes over L160 a year. It is a terrible revelation both of poverty and of riches. The figures thunder at one's imagination more effectively than a sea of rhetoric. And the figures concerning destitution and the housing of the poor are still more terrible in their realism. Shelley never wrote a revolutionary hymn that more surely prophesied the coming of a new society. Social greed, that has withstood ten thousand prophets and poets, at last begins to feel troubled in the unaccustomed presence of the statistician. Not the statistician in his study, of course: he is no more than a dryasdust inventor. But the statistician, like Florence Nightingale, with the genius of a fine purpose and a sure aim with sure facts. This is not to discredit any of the old battalions of reform. It is merely to hail the coming of the new regiment of the statisticians, who fight with tables instead of swords, and whose leaders exhort them on the eve of battle with passages out of Blue Books. Statistics and the man I sing. Let the next great epic be an Arithmiad.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On The Beauty Of Statistics