By Chikara Mitchell
As much as some of us may want to run for the hills when it comes to math we have to admit it’s all around us. Outside of algebra and geometry that may have tainted our secondary school report cards, in our everyday lives statistics help the world, namely our social systems, go round. Social Statistics refers to the use of statistics to study human behaviour and social environments (University of Manchester, 2021). Hence, we pretty much use these statistics to answer almost every social question possible including those about finances, population, trends, social standing and more. However, what happens when these statistics aren’t updated regularly? What happens when these statistics aren’t publicly available? What do we believe is the truth when the numbers don’t seem to exist and opinion takes precedence?
Let’s imagine that you’ve just watched a movie that you know will be the best one for the year. You’re ready to share and recommend it to your friends but before you do so you head online to attach at least two reviews that you have no doubt are going to be glowing. To your surprise, critics seemed to hate the movie and most reviews from the general public say it’s the worst movie they’ve ever seen. In this hypothetical situation you may have just experienced the false consensus effect. The false consensus effect refers to a form of assimilation that is characterized by a tendency to overestimate the extent to which other people share one’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. In social perception, people tend to assume that their own responses are more common; they consider alternative responses as uncommon, deviant or inappropriate (Coleman, 2006). After reading this definition you may think back and realize you may have possibly encountered a real scenario like this before, where something you may have thought to be the consensus across the board was actually just your opinion. In the real world, statistics help us bridge this gap. Providing us with the necessary figures and data that allow us to form accurate perceptions of our society at large.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of statistical research being done in the Caribbean with the last publicly available study on this topic ironically being completed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in May 2012, almost a decade ago. Nevertheless, this study acknowledged that Caribbean countries face great difficulty by the increased demand for accurate, relevant and timely statistical data and they mentioned funding as a momentous hurdle to be crossed and they stressed the large gap in social statistics (United Nations, 2012). The study even went on to explain that these statistics are crucial for the Caribbean as evidence-based policies can only be addressed through accurate, relevant and timely statistical data of a very broad scope (United Nations, 2012). It then begs the question, ‘If no statistical data is being collected, how are policies being formed to assist those that need the help the most?’.
While one may be led to believe that in most cases the absence of relevant statistics doesn’t affect the general population at large this actually isn’t so. As statistics are used widely to address societal issues around us and to also disseminate information. A lack of these statistics could then lead to an inadequate number of policies required to solve definite problems.
Remember the false consensus effect? This effect is also used in situational problems where if we’re surrounded by others who for example all have cars, it’s easy for us to assume that most people will have cars too. However, statistics encourages us to have a realistic view of our every changing world. It encourages us to step out of our own bubbles of thought and be able to acknowledge that not everyone lives the life that we seem to believe. The fact is there are people right here in Trinidad and Tobago who have been seemingly left behind by statistics. Believe it or not, there are citizens of this country who don’t exist on paper and others who don’t have their needs and challenges marked down into a thick ledge book.
Activists, social workers and care services associates visit these citizens in rural areas reached by wading through mud or crossing old rickety bridges. If you were to take a closer look around at your own communities, you’d be able to see too that they’re possibly way closer than you think. These are the people that statistics don’t always carry as the last public study on poverty in Trinidad and Tobago was conducted in 2018. Even if we were to ignore the fact that this was done four years ago, we’d still have to face that circumstances have drastically changed due to the effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic. With local unemployment rates increasing since 2020, is it that hard to believe that we’d have unprecedented cases of poverty that we can’t even fathom? Or does false consensus effect blind us to the actuality that because we and our peers have access to school, healthcare, housing and food that it’s the same for everyone across the board?
It’s a harsh reality to face and with the lack of information it’s not surprising what most members of the general public think. While it may just seem to be another case of ‘Who Feels it Knows It’ the introduction of up-to-date statistics would play a great role in changing public perception which could then add pressure on governmental bodies to prioritize the right concerns on the political agenda. Without the numbers however, we seem to be ‘spinning top in mud’ and inadvertently pushing aside the members of our society who need it most. Honestly, it’d be pretty difficult to argue against reliable and valid numbers printed in black and white. According to Hippocrates, “There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former produces knowledge, the latter ignorance.” I wonder which one we’ll choose?