Cabecera. Bibliotecario. Por Edgardo Civallero
Critical notes

Dangerous statistics

Critical note 07


 

"There are two breads. You eat two. I do not eat any. Average consumption: one bread per person."

This was how statistics worked for Nicanor Parra. The Chilean poet, probably unfamiliar with statistical theory, nevertheless understood two of its most remarkable and dangerous qualities: (a) statistics' capacity to be manipulated (in their elaboration, in their presentation) and thus transmit a deformed, biased or lying reality, which serves to confuse and manipulate; and (b) people's tendency to blindly believe in statistics, even if they do not understand what they are or how they are produced (a situation from which the English sentence "lies, damned lies, and statistics" emerged).

As a discipline, Statistics manages very powerful tools. That makes it a source of potential threats. All Statistics' handbooks, without exception, emphasize the problems, risks and biases involved in the application of statistical techniques and tools to a set of data. "Cooking" (manipulating) statistics is amazingly easy ― in fact, there are already classic books on the subject, like the very basic one by Darrell Huff, and serious reports that warn about certain practices, especially when presenting budgets or results of projects.

Handbooks also point out that statistical analysis allows approaching certain results and inferring a number of things within certain ranges, and even (with caution) establishing hypothetical patterns and models. But in no case does it allow for anything more than nebulous possibilities or extrapolations. These handbooks also indicate that subjecting qualitative data to statistical analysis means forcing them to go through a terrible "Procrustean bed."

However, nowadays we have data science, data mining, R-language and tons of new techniques and their sub-sub-sub-disciplines (and their corresponding courses, webinars, MOOCs, meetings, conferences and publications) which are nothing else but old, good Statistics, but applied to modern "big" data with the help of contemporary technology (and with a much cooler name). We also have chats, statements, works and results that clearly demonstrate that the practitioners of these "disciplines" did not read the basic handbooks, or that they had a very hasty and superficial training...

Most of them seem to ignore the two basic problems identified by Mr Nicanor Parra. But they are deeply convinced that they know something anyways...

[Libraries are no stranger to statistics ― and their problems. There is even an IFLA manifesto about this topic (which, to tell the truth, adds nothing to the conversation). However, little is said in librarianship about the risks of statistics, about potential conflicts and biases... As with many other aspects of the discipline and the profession, everything seems to be positive and great. But no, it is not].

 


Critical notes

"Human libraries" (II)

Critical note 08


 

This is the catalog that one of the so-called "human libraries" offers on the Internet.

http://humanlibrary.org/

In short: "Come and meet the ones excluded, discriminated, forgotten and mistreated by your society. We lend them for a little while."

It would be interesting (it would be important, actually) to stop "showing" the same social sectors and human groups, no matter if, as it is usually argued, "it is for their own good" or if it is "to open spaces for them". Those who are willing to really know the most fragile threads of their social fabric do everything in their hands to approach them: trust me, there are many paths. Putting those treads in a library, on a shelf, in a window in plain sight, can make their problems or issues more visible, but it will not solve them (and that window can become a pillory).

If we are going to show certain social sectors on the shelves of our libraries, we could also include in our catalogs our racist, xenophobic and neo-nazi neighbours; all the bankers who have stolen money from their clients; those politicians accused and convicted of corruption; sex offenders (including priests and nuns); animal abusers; bullies...

Or, if we want to do something more positive, we could include the last artisans, artists, narrators and singers of the community, and those who still perform those tasks and jobs that are disappearing in our societies. Although a committed library would actually go beyond "human libraries" and organize workshops in which those people, those "living books", teach their skills and convey what they know. "Human libraries" just satisfy the curiosity of a few who look from afar: as it happens with library books, the "elements" that compose the catalogs of "human libraries" return to the shelf once the curiosity of their "users" is satisfied.

By the way: soon we can add a librarian in the catalogs of "human libraries" -- so that people may remember how it was like to deal with one.

 


Critical notes

Solidarity, 21st century-style

Critical note 09


 

The world is going to hell.

Do not despair, though: our most brilliant minds have invented drones that will bring the Internet to the entire planet.

That way, it will not matter where I am dying of hunger or thirst, where I am suffering the floods or droughts that we already have, where I am facing war and disaster, where I am enduring the hardships of being a refugee, where my crops and animals are dying, or where I am a slave-worker: I can always update my status on social networks.

And I will be able to receive a lot of solidarity in the form of "likes", and even some nice animated gif, or a sweet emoticon. And, that's for sure, many will re-tweet my status. And a few others will put my picture on their wall, with a message saying "Like if you think he is brave", or "Je suis [my name]". And when I get over two million visits, I'll be in the newspapers (now the newspapers cover those "news"), and maybe someone will create a change.org page, and even organize a crowdfunding (money that will never reach my hands, but that will help to oil the "solidarity industry"...).

And there I will be, hyper-connected, receiving all that lovely solidarity in the form of tweets, likes and visits. Trusting that some invisible deity will take them into account and save me from the fate that awaits me. One that, if we keep walking the path we are walking, awaits us all.

[All this also applies to the world of libraries; especially to those librarians who think that by "liking" a Facebook page they already become "activists"].

 


 

About the posts

Texts: Edgardo Civallero.

Picture 01: Firasabouzeid (link) | Picture 02: Public domain pictures (link) | Picture 03: Getty Images (link).

Notes' index.

 



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