Statistically Speaking

Quantum physicists tell us that at the subatomic level there is indeterminacy to the interactions and interconnections of particles—that they do not take place at a definite place and time—and thus (they) exhibit a likelihood of occurring; reality is associated with a statistical probability distribution.  In other words, variation is an inherent phenomenon characteristic of reality.


Accordingly, in a similar fashion as what happens at the subatomic level, this variation reflects the inherent variation in a system’s constituent elements and in the interaction among these elements.  It then follows that living systems, as well as mechanical systems, communicate their state or condition through their effects in the language of variation. That is, systems don’t simply produce results they produce and exhibit variation in and through their effects.


Therefore to effectively manage requires statistical thinking, which is the ability to perceive and understand the variation caused as a means of understanding the causes of the variation; it requires using data to develop understanding.  Thinking statistically enables one to identify and understand patterns of variation, which leads to the capability to develop knowledge and gain understanding by identifying and analyzing order amongst chaos.


Even though so many speak about our dynamic world—characterizing it as ever changing—most continue to order and manage organizations/systems, as if variation was not inherent, as if things and people were controllable. That is to say, the vast majority of people manage as if they lived in a deterministic world believing in the possibility of control for desired results.  Hence society’s prevalent results orientation and the use of numerical goal setting and accountability schemes as solutions to systemic problems.


Immediate Concerns

So, in spite of the fact it is clearly an essential capability very few have learned statistical thinking and developed the complimentary abilities of systems and critical thinking.  Why?  Largely because it is not part of the traditional curriculum offered in K-12 or in colleges and universities.


So why isn’t it considered important and thus offered?  A major contributing factor is that Western society’s system of orientation is grounded in reductionism and dualistic thinking which supports the importance of results in the short-term.  Anything that turns attention away from the proximate, in either time or location, is deemed unimportant and unnecessary.  And why is society’s orientation as it is?  The egoistic economic system, which is grounded in and thus requires the belief that people are at base pain avoiding and pleasure maximizing intelligent animals, has permeated all aspects of life in Western society.  Stuck in our animal nature, we are focused on avoiding pain/danger and seeking pleasure/sustenance in the moment.  Hence CEOs are concerned with quarter-to-quarter profit growth, politicians with their next election, and educators with this year’s test scores.  This mindset is so culturally ingrained and tacit that almost no one gives it further (critical) thought. Unquestionably, what’s in it for ‘me’ (or ‘us’ but not ‘them’) now is what matters most—each must watch out for number one.


Limiting Perception & Understanding

Shinning a flashlight in laser like fashion to illuminate one corner of a room—the what’s the immediate concern for ‘me’ corner—will leave the rest of the room and the remaining corners in darkness. In other words shinning the light of attention on but one aspect of a situation, in this case the immediate moment-to-moment issue for ‘me’, leaves other incrementally developing patterns and associated long-term systemic issues imperceptible.  Moreover it also leaves the effects upon ‘them’ of ‘me’ getting ‘mine’ imperceptible as well.


In effect people in industrialized society tacitly learn to ignore and even deny the existence of the issues in the other corners—generally we just don’t see or care about these important challenges coming until they become an in-the-moment urgent issue concerning ‘me’ or ‘us’!  Essentially, because of the significance placed on getting results now, people develop a habit of mind that leads them to disregard the system itself—and the influence on others—along with its inherent variability and patterns emerging over greater spans of time that would foretell of an impending danger.  A recent case in point, the likelihood of the 2008 financial meltdown was noted by a few years before, but nonetheless ignored.


With patterns of variation being relatively slow to reveal themselves compared to the occurrence of effects that arise in very short time spans, attention and concern is directed to that which is perceived as urgent, irrespective of its negligibility in relation to long term viability of the system.  When the usual concern is for monthly, quarterly or yearly results, then things developing over years will be either unimportant or imperceptible. The urgent gets all the attention and the important (more) long-term developing issues are believed inconsequential and thus put off.  Inevitably the effect of this misplaced attention is the source of what we will pay attention to in the future, once it becomes an in-the-moment urgent crisis.


At crisis time, seemingly there is an over abundance of Monday morning quarterbacks that do the expected.  Not possessing statistical and system thinking ability, they blame those proximate to the issue for their inattentiveness and their lack of accountability for this in-the-moment crisis.  After all who can fault those attending to the urgently critical issue and calling for heads to roll!  It sounds so decisive, in-charge and responsible! The current public hanging of teachers for the ills of the education system is a classic example of this.


Get Real

Though reality—which we in large part participate in creating—forever presents us with challenges to change our thinking, we rarely ever do change our mind.  Most prefer to continue focusing attention on the in-the-moment urgent symptoms while overlooking and failing to understand the system and its emerging patterns.  An ancient Chinese sage once said: “be careful of each day that goes by, with the greatest of caution. No one stumbles over a mountain, but people do trip over anthills.” Though it is much easier to identify a crisis—even a caveman can do it—attending to things after they happen is far less effective than is attending to things as they are developing, way before they become a crisis.  With the proper thinking many crises can be avoided, if only people had the will to change their mind so they could learn a new way of thinking and seeing.

6 thoughts on “Statistically Speaking

  1. Greg, I enjoyed this essay. It hit the core of our problems as a society, and happens also to be a very pithy exposition of the value of statistical thinking in general.

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