Man, Not Numbers

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I have come to detest the social sciences.

I know that I should not. I know that the search for truth is an honorable thing. But the means for coming to know the truth must be adequated to the object you are studying, and the two most popular means for knowing the truth about mankind are, I think, utterly inadequate.

One is adopted from physics, and seeks to present human realities in statistical form. The other is adopted from Freudian psychoanalysis, whereby the relation of a single “case study,” often from the subject’s own point of view, is taken as exemplary for an entire group of people, and sometimes for mankind as a whole.

Today I’d like to examine the severe shortcomings of the first method. Later I will deal with the second.

Suppose you wish to get to know John. How would you go about it? If you turned to “science,” that word to conjure with – if you want to save him to a disk drive, you might amass facts about John that can be stated precisely and numerically. John is 183 centimeters tall. He weighs 81.4 kilograms. His heart rate is 56 beats per minute. His ratio of body fat is 14 percent. He is married and has two children. He earns $71,896 a year, of which he spends so much on his mortgage, so much on the family car, on groceries, on the children’s clothing, on entertainment, on books.

Amass a sufficient body of facts, and you “know” John. That’s like saying that you have seen the Mona Lisa because you have conducted a chemical analysis of the paint. It’s like saying that you know Charles Dickens’ Hard Times because you have enumerated the sentences and paragraphs, computing the average lengths thereof, and amassing a concordance for every word used. A horse is a graminivorous quadruped; now you know horses.

You see the problem. Personal knowledge, knowledge of persons and knowledge embodied in persons, is not like that. It cannot be expressed quantitatively; and indeed numbers can easily mislead us. Suppose John spends $500 a year on books, well above the median household expenditure for such. What can we conclude?

Nothing, really. John might be studious – if the books were written by Kierkegaard, Burke, and Tolstoy, and if John actually reads them and mulls them over. But maybe he doesn’t read them. Maybe he buys one or two rare books a year, for their value as artifacts. Maybe he buys faddish junk, which he reads, much to his intellectual decay. Maybe he buys books as ancillary to a hobby – stamp collecting, or Scottish tartans. Maybe he buys them for his precocious son. We don’t know.

Take another fact about John. He attends religious services on Sunday. Given the context of contemporary America, the whole “picture” of our experience, we can make a few half-decent guesses about John, as opposed to the people we know who snore that morning away, or give homage to the cruel god, Golf.

Measuring a nose to determine race (Germany, 1930s)
Measuring a nose to determine race (Germany, 1930s)

But apart from that picture, what guesses can we venture? If the year is 1910, not many, because everybody is at church on Sunday. Does that mean, then, that his attendance means nothing, because nothing expressible in numbers will distinguish John from his fellows? No, we can’t say that, either. What is he hearing at the service? What hymns does he sing? What neighbors does he meet? What sins does he acknowledge?

“Well,” say the reducers, “this is where polls come into play.” (A “poll” is a head – a bean; hence “bean counter.”) “We ask scientifically formed questions, ask a well-chosen sample of people to rate John according to various criteria, and then compile the results, comparing them against similar compilations regarding similar subjects from similar socio-economic backgrounds,” et cetera ad numerandum.

So we learn that John is rated at 4.1 for courage, on a scale of 1 to 10. His fellows snicker behind his back.

But what does that mean? We are in 1810, and John is a Quaker. Donald the town drunk insults him abominably, and John says, “Friend, that’s the ale speaking.” We are in 1810, John is a rake, and Frederick his fellow rake has cast vile aspersions on the reputation of John’s sister – and John does not challenge Frederick to a duel. We are in 1942, and John’s son wants to lie about his age to enlist in the Army, but John moves behind the scenes to thwart him.

We are in 2015, and John’s neighbors laugh at him for not wanting to go along with the latest fashion in sexual tolerance. We are in 2015, and John’s fellow parishioners pity him for going along with the latest fashion in sexual tolerance.

What can we tell?

But what if we poll a thousand Johns to find out what they believe is right or wrong? Surely then we can come to some reliable human knowledge?

Suppose we find that 53 percent of Johns believe it is sometimes permissible to cheat on your income taxes, signing your name where it says that you “swear” that you have reported the truth. What does that mean?

Nothing as regards good and evil. We’d hate to have results of polls conducted when Hitler was drawing fanatical crowds in Germany. We do not care what Vikings believe about marauding seacoast villages, or what people awash in pornography believe about sex.

Does it at least mean that John’s nation is full of liars? It might; but suppose John lives under tyranny. Or suppose that the taxes are intolerably heavy. Perhaps these people are doing what they must. Perhaps they are arrant liars and thieves among liars and thieves.

We can know human things only by human means. That is what poets, statesmen, and philosophers used to be for. I wait for physical science to tell me about magnesium. I do not wait for statisticians to tell me about mankind.


Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Rich in MN

    How did that one Mark Twain quip go? There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics?

    But statistics are like movie stars: the deeply troubling thing about them is not their inadequacy; rather, it is their inordinate power. Statistics are burning matches tossed into a dry forest. Just as you cannot have half a jungle (cf. “Defending Marriage”), you cannot have half a forest fire. We live in a spiritually dessicated culture. In the late 1940s when Carle Zimmerman, using one type of sociological methodology, was trying to warn us of impending societal disaster, Alfred Kinsey was using statistics (albeit fabricated statistics) to light matches in a deceptively dry forest with a parched underbrush. Statistics, in concert with our mostly debauched secular entertainment, comprise the moral compass in a land in which the coherent compass has been rejected.

    [BTW: I loved “Defending Marriage,” and I am particularly grateful that you explicitly call out the “straw man” arguments for what they are. For those like myself who do not possess your intellectual acumen, we can get too easily stumped by ripostes that should not stump us. It definitely helps that you address these objections in your arguments. Thank you.]

    • kilbirt42

      Twain was unfamiliar with polls, or he might have offered that they are nonsense on stilts. They are often taken on first impressions and made problematical by the form that questions take in the mouths of interested persons. They are often used to create momentum where none exists or to distort the media’s reading of public sentiment.

      When people vote in referenda, or through legislators it is a far better insight into what people actually think, hence the liberal urge to devalue our Election Day duty and make voting a year round activity.

      The great mass of states have not legalized gay marriage or desert swimming because the people in them have not all gone to Harvard or Yale, and so they may be “justly” regarded as “lesser breeds without the law.” This has been a judicial coup d’état in large measure.

      We are a far cry from that time when on first hearing the words “government of, by and for the people” I thrilled to them. Now, I know better.

      What was it Lincoln said? How many legs does a dog have, if we call its tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.

      Now we live in Humpty Dumpty land where the meaning of words is determined by those who have the power.
      ” All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I am reminded of Bl John Henry Newman: “Man” is no longer what he really is, an individual presented to us by our senses, but as we read him in the light of those comparisons and contrasts which we have made him suggest to us. He is attenuated into an aspect, or relegated to his place in a classification. Thus his appellation is made to suggest, not the real being which he is in this or that specimen of himself, but a definition. If I might use a harsh metaphor, I should say he is made the logarithm of his true self, and in that shape is worked with the ease and satisfaction of logarithms.”

  • Manfred

    Dr. Esolen, with your permission I am going to cross step to a real example which is quite current. John was in Rome this past weekend to rally at St. John Lateran Cathedral in support of traditional marriage as it has existed for thousands of years and was created by God. Among the enormous crowds (one million?) were thousands of lay Catholics along with Muslims, Jews, and, as reported, homosexual groups as well. All giving their unqualified support for marriage.
    Fresh from his “success” with Laudato Si, was Pope Francis there? Were Cardinals there? Were Bishops there? The most important and practical action they could have taken on the problems in the world and NONE of them was there!

    • RainingAgain

      I have read from a reliable source that, although responsible for much of the organisation, the Italian bishops considered it more prudent to remain invisible, lest their opponents have grounds for dismissing the event as one of manipulation of the laity by their oppressive clerics. Indeed, it is important that we the laity act, and be seen to act, out of our own volition, rather than seeming to be “priest-ridden” into doing so. Additionally, Pope Francis is reported to have made a powerful speech on the necessity of heterosexual parenting the day after, the Sunday.

      • samton909

        You certainly would not have heard about that speech on Crux, or NCR, These faux Catholic outlets are totally dedicated to the gay program.

    • kilbirt42


  • While driving to work this morning, I heard a story on NPR News which delved into the perplexing fact that the Charleston, S.C. shooter is a “Millennial”, and that statistically Millennials are more tolerant than their predecessors…particularly on race. The reporter mined the statistical data for a possible answer to why a Millennial would commit such a brutal act, while being a member of a tolerant statistical group. All they talked about was numbers. The word evil was never mentioned.

    • RainingAgain

      An enlightening example of the depth of information provided by statistics. They can provide an opinion on every subject but the truth about nothing. This millennial generation may imagine themselves to be uniquely tolerant, but that is probably as insubstantial and shallow as the rest of their weltanschauung.

      • FreemenRtrue

        The dichotomy is that millennials don’t believe in anything. They are nearly existential nihilists.

    • elcer

      Do the folks at NPR even believe in evil? Probably not so they have to resort to numbers and science which will ultimately explain everything.

    • samton909

      That goes to show how indelibly stupid NPR has become. So thoroughly awash in their peculiar brand of politically correctness and an overly silly veneer of “science”, they are not smart enough to realize that even if his generation was “tolerant” it only takes one person to pull a trigger, so the whole discussion was nonsense. Yep, that’s NPR.

  • Dominic

    The most deluded, and perhaps deluding social “science” is economics. While working on a PhD in the early ’90s I noted to other grad students the amazing level of mathematics required. Far beyond that needed for an advanced degree in my undergraduate discipline, chemical engineering. The answer, from a then-wise professor, “In economics, the bridge never falls down.”

    Sadly, we have now come to look at economists as mephistophelean physicists of human action. And they’re charlatans. Some of them don’t realize it. Many do.

    • Rusty

      That is but one of the reasons why economics is known as the dismal science. I also recall that when you have three economists in one room, you have five opinions.

      • Dominic

        One of my professors in about 1992 (Philipe Weil) noted that he knew of no professional economist who’s “research” disproved or even called into question his own political perspective.

    • Leonard

      The knowledge revealed by economists has tremendous utility but when applied in the market it changes that market – the knowledge itself changes supply and demand – it is an inherently nonlinear and highly chaotic system because because economic knowledge cannot be separated from that system.

    • FreemenRtrue

      Aren’t people like Hayek famous for saying economics is basically study of an indeterminate system? Policy should be carefully applied?

  • James Swetnam, S.J.

    Go to the Bible to know who what constitutes a man. The image of the “heart” is used in the Bible hundreds of times. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Paragraph 2563): “The heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw.’ The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation; it is the place of covenant.” — James Swetnam, S.J

  • Stanley Anderson

    Wait, wait, Anthony Esolen — you’re not by chance suggesting on the side that, say, the Real Presence cannot be scientifically ferreted out of the consecrated host by means of chemical analysis or its statistical proximity to human flesh either? In that case, I guess we have to say, with the apostles, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life”.

  • Phil

    In full disclosure, I am one of the detestable social scientists that Anthony Esolen writes about. There is a good critique of the use of quantitative methods in the social sciences (see Christian Smith’s What is a Person?), but Esolen’s is pretty clunky. It’s laughable to think that social scientists conduct surveys to rate John, or to determine what is right or wrong. Despite Esolen’s strawman depiction of surveys, he makes some good points. Surveys and statistics must always be understood in context, and the conclusions that can be drawn are always limited. Nevertheless, they do add some level of understanding about people. In the same way, reading Augustine’s Confessions must be understood in context and adds some understanding of people as a whole, to the extent that we generalize Augustine’s experiences to the rest of us, but it’s not a complete or perfect picture either. Let me conclude by offering a quantitative nugget and suggest why it matters. Roughly a quarter of Catholics who attend mass weekly believe that the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is only a symbol. This particular survey question was NOT asking what they believe about the Eucharist, but what they believe is the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Is this important knowledge about American Catholics? Absolutely. And with this knowledge perhaps Fr. Bob, who spent 5 years in seminary studying the great philosophers, will make a note to mention a few things about what the Church actually teaches during his next homily. If only more of our priests really knew the John’s and Jane’s who sit in the pews on Sunday morning.

    • Arden Abeille

      Having a background in Psychology myself, I will add my support to Phil’s point. Thoughtful and careful social scientists of integrity do have useful and valuable things to add to the study of the human person. Unfortunately, the way that the vast majority of people hear about any kind of study (from any field of science) these days is through the grotesquely distorting lens of the media culture, which I am increasingly inclined to say is not just the given “through a glass darkly” perception we can’t help but have in this life, but actively demonic in engaging in purposeful distortions.

  • Manfred

    RainingAgain: Thank you for gentle comments about the missing Pope, cardinals and bishops on Saturday. After World War II, Pius XII threatened to, and did ,excommunicate any Catholic who voted for the communists in a major election in Italy. They represented that much of a threat to the well-being of the nation.
    Truth be told, I believe that many in the Hierarchy of the Church (see: Bruno Forte et al.) would love to see sodomy “normalized”, just as they would love to “normalize” people living in a permanent state of adultery after a divorce and remarriage without benefit of a decree of nullity. The dominant forces in the Church at this time simply are not Catholic.

    • Ringo7

      I totally agree.

  • Andrej

    Sociology/economics and their statistical methods aren’t comparable to pure sciences like physics. They are methodological; they study accidental series and not essential series. I think this is one of the greatest burdens of living in a protestant culture where historo-biblicism was a founding (heretical, nonsensical) principle…methodology/history/statistics =/= real knowledge/revelation/science.

  • Bro_Ed

    I would vote for neither statistics nor Freud. I had to make quick business judgments about people in a fairly short time, and I used “vibes.” I’d take them to lunch, for example. I’d see how they treated the help, the people around us, what they laughed at, what annoyed them, and get an idea of what they believed in. In those insensitive days, we might even have a drink (“In vino veritas”). The method is flawed but I’d give it an 80% accuracy estimate.

  • Leonard

    I do not agree with Prof. Esolen’s assessment of physics as a collection of statistics reflecting reality. Physics is based on a faith in the consistency of nature. Statistical measurement points to physical law. Physicists are very interested in such laws. Knowing them is a matter of seeing in your mind the underlying connections between the statistical facts. When such things happen the physicist experiences something like joy and whether he realizes it himself, it proceeds from confirming a sort of faith.

    • Arden Abeille

      This is quite true, but Mr. Esolen’s point is that physics is no way, nor does it provide any useful way, to study the human person.

  • samton909

    Now, get on to explaining why the social sciences are filled with rabid activists who join the field to advance their personal and political ideas, not to pursue truth.

    The Social sciences are a profound abuse of science – a perversion of science.