The danger of defining by data

Wyatt Massey
Oct 25, 2015 · 4 min read

Remembering that statistics are pieces of who we are, not the full picture

MARDI GRAS members in small-group discussions.

This article is an adaption of a reflection I led with Marquette MARDI GRAS, which volunteered at Project Homeless Connect during a service trip in Milwaukee. Project Homeless Connect is a one-day event when social services across the city come to one location, on Marquette’s campus, to serve people experiencing poverty. Volunteers have direct experience with Milwaukee neighbors as they accompany guests who need these services.


Pick a puzzle piece, or pick two. Study it. Come to know the miniature picture on that piece.

Now, describe the entire puzzle.

It is unlikely that you were able to determine that it was “Mystic Cove” by Ann Stookey from a piece or two. Seeing the entire picture from one piece is an impossible task. The piece represents one part, but it cannot describe the whole. Only combining that one piece with thousands of others can do that.

Statistics about people, such as income levels or demographics, are a lot like puzzle pieces. They are accurate in describing one factor in a person’s life. Yet, they are incomplete and unable to define that person as a whole.

The danger is when a single piece of data becomes a person’s complete definition. Statistics make reality more black and white than it is, imposing neat categories onto complicated people. Too quickly, a stranger experiencing homelessness is termed a “bum” or an abuser of the welfare system before anyone takes the time to understand individual circumstances.

We make assessments because we know someone is one in four Americans who experience mental illness or part of the 9 percent of the country with diabetes. It is easier to generalize about others than try to understand the complexity of those different than us.

Reflecting on our own lives, we can see how inaccurate a single statistic can be. Knowing my height or weight will never describe the people whose lives have influenced me. The size of my bank account does not tell you the passions that wake me up early or the worries that keep me up late. The numbers of my life may fit in a box on a survey but they are not who I am.

Statistics make reality more black and white than it is, imposing neat categories onto complicated people.

Only through direct interaction with someone — asking questions and sharing yourself — do we get to know a person. This can be uncomfortable and requires us to acknowledge our own messiness. Instead of embracing this truth, it is easier to hide behind statistics. Numbers can allow us to look at the world from a comfortable distance, rather than interacting with its disorder. Statistics are human beings with the tears removed.

Events, such as Project Homeless Connect, provide a space for Marquette students to engage with their Milwaukee neighbors who are experiencing poverty. Similar to many other service opportunities, it is a springboard for future relationships with city residents. This means of friendship building can never happen by looking at a city report on poverty.

The direct interaction volunteers had with their neighbors who are impoverished should not be confined to a couple of hours in one day of the year. The event can begin the process of removing the clouds of uncertainty about the lives of others. We can start to describe one another as friends, using words with feeling, such as funny, resilient or passionate, rather than cold, lifeless descriptions about a stranger’s income level or medical history.

Think critically about how we use statistics to define those we do not know. Do not see the stranger on the street as part of the 30 percent who lives differently than you. Instead, remember that each person carries a complex set of hopes, stories and struggles, which do not fit on a spreadsheet.

Statistics are human beings with the tears removed.

For more reading:

  • Click here to read a critique of privilege, from the other side of the street
  • Click here to read how stories create change and numbers do not.
  • Click here to read about finding humanity in a common response.

Wyatt Massey is a human rights journalist and self-diagnosed health nut. He is a student at Marquette University, studying writing-intensive English and advertising.

Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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Wyatt Massey

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Human rights journalist.