There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics. In statistics we create variables, then look at them from all angles, move them around our mouths, masticating their meanings. We swing at them, we grab them, we lurch to save ourselves from their crooked trajectories. But first of all, we categorize them, wrangle them into shapes that will speak to us whether they like it or not. Sometimes it feels like a forced confession, as in “assume a spherical cow.” But that is the way we make sense of the universe. Because God is a mathematician.
Some variables are categorical. They are like sunflower seeds – a kernel (category: edible) and a hull (category: inedible). Some of the variables have a handful of categories (race, for instance), while others limit themselves to forced binaries (dead/alive, male/female, single/married, young/old, you get the picture). We like binary variables; they are easy to work with.
Other variables are continuous. They are like a ripe peach – each bite its own peach essence. These are the variables with tedious trails of possible values. They are age, height, weight, blood pressure just to name a few. They are messy, exist on a continuum and don’t readily self-categorize without some imposed order of a reference value. These are the variables we force into means, medians and modes in order to understand them. They are thorny, mutinous. We subordinate them with our functions, our programming code, whip them into shapes that are manageable, shapes we can understand and draw conclusions from.
If you think about it, even those variables that we call categorical aren’t so easy to categorize. Dead or alive may seem like a simple dichotomy, but how many of us have known people in-between? My patients in the ICU spent days and sometimes months in the purgatory of neither. Though by virtue of maintaining some of their bodily functions they were considered technically alive, by other mathematical estimations they could just as easily have been classified as dead – artificial respiration, artificial circulation, artificial kidney function, etc.
More to the point, such dichotomies as single vs. married fell by the wayside decades ago, when shacking up became a thing, a culturally acceptable phenomenon. And again, the dichotomy of acceptable/unacceptable fails here: acceptable to whom, to which part of the culture?
Male/female binary is being destroyed before our very eyes by the current generation of brave souls who, despite crushing societal disapprobation, forge their own courses in these stormy waters, reminding all of us living in the safety of our deeply worn trenches of our younger, less certain days, when we lived the “both and” rather than “either or.” Even race, according to genetics, is more of a social construct than a biological reality. So do these categories really help us understand our world, or are they just cramming the complexities into an irrelevant ill-fitting cubbyhole?
The world is becoming more continuous, fewer splines, fewer sharp distinctions, more curves and connections. This destruction of the false security of categories is leaving me with a sense of vertigo, but also of wonder and curiosity. (Which are themselves, incidentally, categories.) And some of my fellow humans are choosing to dig deeper trenches, to stay in what they think was once a great America, where “girls were girls and men were men,” where minorities could be easily categorized into black or Hispanic, where you were either straight or gay, and you knew who was a pervert, a criminal, a thug. In those days in that great America people did not hover between life and death, throwing families into alternating states of hope and despair.
In that great America there were three classes – the upper, the middle and the lower, simple categorical variables, easy to cram into a consistent picture of enviable clarity. But what always lurked under these categories are the details of the continua they obscured. You didn’t just wake up one day in the upper class, traversing a financial distance from here to infinity. No, the awakening after the New Deal, after the Great War was to the possibility of the middle category, spanning a coveted but limited segment of wealth, just enough to keep people satisfied. Because satisfied people don’t question. And because categories confirm our understanding of the world, naturally there needed to be a class to elevate all others, a class to look down upon, a class to grind into the dirt, the lower class. The line, however, was thin, where these categories needed to keep the illusion of fluidity, where social mobility was the carrot for all. Life was simple and great in that America, especially if you could move up. And didn’t we all dream of moving up?
The demolition of categories is a double-edged sword. It is a snake you let into your home that will poison your family, the serpent who will enchant you into eating from the tree of knowledge. It is the sledgehammer that destroys the status quo, fills in the trenches, exposes the truth of the continuum. It pulls apart the curtains of our misguided thinking, destroys an outdated model of what we have grown to see as truth.
This election season has been about demolition. Like an ice storm it is pruning dead branches and dying ideas.If we are wise, this election is tilling the field, turning shit into compost, and we will emerge smarter, kinder, more awake, uncomfortable to be sure, but with a better understanding of our world and our selves. There is no suppressing this rebellion, this fracturing of categories, this emergence of the blinding complexity so frightening and exciting to the human brain.
At my computer I do not yet know of other ways to examine data. I still have to impose my will in order to make the numbers spill their secrets. I am still the KGB officer and they fallen dissidents. My computer is an orderly array of zeros and ones, the ultimate rejection of the continuous. The analog world around me is infinite, not subject to binary limitations. Not either man or woman, not either black or white, not either Democrat or Republican. Not either Liberty or Justice. Not either Equality or Freedom. No. Both at the same time. And everything in-between.