Everything old is new again

One of my favorite things about growing up in the family I did, surrounded by the friends my parents had, was the large amount of historical context I was fed for nearly every topic that interested me.

People like my father (who posts here as Michael) and David (the Assistant Village Idiot) were always quick to fill me in on the history of whatever topic I happened to bring up.  This always gave me a good appreciation for the story behind the story as it were, and made me truly relish a good piece of context.  Growing up in the 80’s, this was like having Wikipedia just sort of follow me around.  Come to think of it, some kids may not have appreciated that as much as I did.

I mention all this because I’m packing up my condo this weekend, and have been toting around my laptop to watch Hans Rosling’s hour long documentary “The Joy of Stats” while I work.  I highly recommend this, if not for any new stats knowledge, than at least for the examples he gives and the history lesson.

One of the more interesting points he made actually related to some of my census data posts from earlier this week, so I thought I’d pass it along.

First, if you haven’t read the comment from Glenn, the former Census Bureau employee, on my post about racial categorizations, you should.  He filled in some details I didn’t know….I would never have guessed that it was the Office of Budget Management that set racial categories for the government….and he concludes his comments with this:

Confusing? Yes. Please keep in mind that the purpose of these categories isn’t always statistical but political. Politics makes for strange statistics at times.

I liked that phrase.  I think that “The politics of statistics” should be an interdisciplinary undergrad class of some sort.

Anyway, according to Rosling’s documentary, it was actually the government of Sweden that helped invent the modern study of statistics, and they began to find it so useful that other governments started using it too.  Apparently, it was not actually referred to as statistics, but instead “political arithmetic”.

It is almost surreal to realize that up until that point, countries often didn’t know how many residents they had, or what their biggest challenges were.  An extra bonus in the film is the map of “Bastardy in England”.  Highly recommended.