[OPE-L] [Jurriaan re] The utility of statistics in social science

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Sat Oct 15 2005 - 11:37:31 EDT

---------------------------- Original Message -------------------------
Subject: The utility of statistics in social science
From:    "Jurriaan Bendien" <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date:    Sat, October 15, 2005 11:20 am

As regards the utility of social statistics to describe aggregate social
trends and effects, Lenin started to write a pamphet on the topic during
the first world war, a month or so before the February revolution in
http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jan/00d.htm He never
completed it. His focus seems to have been on the nationalities question
and the demographics of the world population. His comments are
interesting, insofar as he explains why quantitative investigation is
relevant: namely, to get beyond "generalities", "phrase mongering" and
concepts devoid of real content. This is, incidentally, the same Lenin
who made a study of Hegel's dialectics.

Here's an excerpt:

"Of the essays here presented for the reader's attention, some are published
for the first time, others appeared in various periodicals before the war.
They deal with a question which now, naturally, arouses especial
interest-the significance and role of national movements, the relationship
between the national and the international. The biggest drawback, one most
frequently encountered in all the arguments on this question, is lack of
concreteness and historical perspective. It has become customary to
smuggle in every manner of contraband under cover of general phrases. We
believe, therefore, that a few statistics will prove anything but
superfluous. A comparison with the lessons of the war of what we said
before the war is not, in our view, unuseful. Unity of theory and
perspective gives the essays continuity.

Facts are stubborn things, runs the English saying. It comes to mind, in
particular, when a certain author waxes enthusiastic about the greatness
of the "nationality principle" in its different implications and
relationships. What is more, in most cases the "principle" is applied Just
as aptly, and is just as much in place, as the exclamation "many happy
returns of the day" by a certain folk-tale character at the sight of a

Precise facts, indisputable facts-they are especially abhorrent to this
type of author, but are especially necessary if we want to form a proper
understanding of this complicated, difficult and often deliberately
confused question. But how to gather the facts? How to establish their
connection and interdependence?

The most widely used, and most fallacious, method in the realm of social
phenomena is to tear out individual minor facts and juggle with examples.
Selecting chance examples presents no difficulty at all, but is of no
value, or of purely negative value, for in each individual case everything
hinges on the historically concrete situation. Facts, if we take them in
their entirety, in their interconnection, are not only stub born things,
but undoubtedly proof-bearing things. Minor facts, if taken out of their
entirety, out of their interconnection, if they are arbitrarily selected
and torn out of context, are merely things for juggling, or even worse.
For instance, when an author who was once a serious author and wishes to
be regarded as such now too takes the fact of the Mongolian yoke and
presents it as an example that explains certain events in
twentieth-century Europe, can this be considered merely juggling, or
would it not be more correct to consider it political chicanery? The
Mongolian yoke is a fact of history, and one doubtlessly connected with
the national question, just as in twentieth-century Europe we observe a
number of facts likewise doubtlessly connected with this question. But
you will find few people-of the type the French describe as "national
clowns"-who would venture, while claiming to be serious, to use this fact
of the Mongolian yoke as an illustration of events in twentieth-century

The inference is clear: we must seek to build a reliable foundation of
precise and indisputable facts that can be confronted to any of the
 "general" or "example-based" arguments now so grossly misused in certain
countries. And if it is to be a real foundation, we must take not
individual facts, but the sum total of facts, without a single exception,
relating to the question under discussion. Otherwise there will be the
inevitable, and fully justified, suspicion that the facts were selected
or compiled arbitrarily, that instead of historical phenomena being
presented in objective interconnection and interdependence and treated
as a whole, we are presenting a "subjective" concoction to justify what
might prove to be a dirty business. This does happen ... and more often
than one might think.

Proceeding from these considerations, we have decided to begin with
statistics, fully aware of course that statistics are deeply antipathetic
to certain readers, who prefer "flattering deception" to "base truths",
and to certain authors, who are prone to smuggle in political contraband
tinder cover of "general" disquisitions about internationalism,
cosmopolitanism, nationalism, patriotism, etc. "

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