I strongly believe in statistical explanation, although it makes me philosophically uneasy. It’s not that I can’t reconcile it with my no less strong belief in the principle of cause and effect; philosophers of various persuasions have taught me different ways to adjust the relative strength of these two beliefs as a function of circumstances. My unease is rather that statistical explanation is hard to reconcile with an attachment to personal responsibility. Ian Hacking — who was authoritatively dissed in my presence a few weeks ago but whose analytic style I continue to admire — drew attention to the problem in The Taming of Chance. After quoting Adolphe Quetelet, one of the founders of statistical methods in sociology and criminology —
It is society that prepares the crime; the guilty person is only the instrument who executes it. The victim on the scaffold is in a certain way the expiatory victim of society. His crime is the fruit of the circumstances in which he finds himself —
he ends Chapter 13 with the natural question:
If statistics teaches us about a budget of crime, and that lesson has as a consequence that the criminal is merely an instrument, then where is his free will? Why is he responsible for what he did? What future for morality?
Chapter 14 doesn’t answer the question so much as describe how the 19th century put statistical explanation to work in an effort to modify the crime budget:
Discover what are the statistical laws that govern crime, disease, vice, unrest. Then find ways to alter the conditions under which those laws apply.
Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong alludes to the same way of thinking in a section entitled “Does Facebook know you’re a terrorist?” The people who carried out mass murder in central Paris on November 13, 2015, may have thought they were acting on behalf of a political purpose, but I strongly suspect, on statistical grounds, that any attempt to address the phenomenon they represent through political measures is bound to backfire. The desire to punish the perpetrators is understandable. Since the police are reporting that the perpetrators are already dead and since it seems perpetrators of such attacks don’t expect to survive to be punished, it’s also understandable that the desire to punish them will seek other outlets that are likely to be less effective in the long run than an appeal to statistical explanation. I hope the authorities are thinking along the same lines, but I’m not optimistic.
Friends and even near-strangers have been writing to ask whether my family in Paris is safe. They are safe, and so is everyone I know in Paris. Will they be reasoning statistically and changing their behavior as a result of the latest attacks? Hard to say.
UPDATED: Four people have written to disagree with the political claims they think they see in the above posts. They make some interesting points but, in the first place, this blog is not at all the right place for geopolitical discussion and, in the second place, and more importantly, the purpose of this post is contained in the last three lines; the rest was material I had been saving for another occasion, added in order to fit the framework of the blog. So I am not publishing any comments; but messages of moral support it will be deeply appreciated.