Statistical Communities

“The science of statistics is the chief instrumentality through which the progress of civilization is now measured, and by which its development hereafter will be largely controlled.”


“I feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages.”

Willy in Up Front by BILL MAULDIN

A DEMOCRATIC NATION, like any other, needed some way of distinguishing its groups of citizens. While Old World class distinctions would not do, there were certain obvious advantages to numbers. Statistical communities, creatures of the new science of statistics, provided ways of clustering people into groups that made sense, without necessarily making invidious distinctions. Numbers were neutral. No number was “better” than another. The numbering of people (one person, one vote) itself seemed to symbolize the equality at which a democratic society aimed. From their very nature, numbers offered a continuous series, a refuge from those sharp leaps between “classes” found in other societies. And, unlike the traditional categories of social class which had been topped by a divinely anointed monarch, statistical categories could be extended upward indefinitely. They were thus admirably adapted to a New World booster optimism: “The sky’s the limit!” The direction of numbers, like the aims and hopes of American society, could go endlessly up.

But statistical communities had their own problems. The social “science” which brought these communities into being could reassure the citizen that he was average or normal. But while the neutral language of numbers made no invidious distinctions, neither did it help the man who needed a moral guide. In the world of measuring and counting, of correlated numerical indices, the citizen was thrown back on himself, left alone in a supermarket of statistics. There he had to decide for himself what the numbers meant and how to translate facts into rules. The most ancient and sacred of human relations—rich and poor, parent and child, husband and wife—were antisepticized into percentages. After mid-twentieth century the nation which had grown in an effort to fulfill the rule of the “majority” gave a politically potent new meaning to the numerical word “minority.” And Americans went in desperate, sometimes futile, quest of moralistic meanings for what were once purely statistical terms.


A Numerical Science of Community: The Rise of the Average Man

A WHOLE NEW SCIENCE was coming into being for the quantitative analysis of society. The application to New World needs of theoretical tools from western Europe was creating a new Numerical Science of Community.

The words “statistics” and “statistical” entered the language in England about 1790, probably from the German. These new words, built on the word for “state,” expressed expanding nationalism and also the universal quest for new “sciences,” both of which bred a new faith in measurement. For a while the word “publicistics” (from “publicist”) competed in literary use. In 1797 the Encyclopaedia Britannica (3d ed.) defined: “Statistics, a word lately introduced to express a view or survey of any kingdom, county, or parish.” Its usage quickly broadened. “The Idea I annex to the term,” the far-sighted Sir John Sinclair wrote in his Statistical Account of Scotland in 1798, “is an inquiry into the state of a country, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement.” To help increase agricultural production, Sinclair developed a system of county reports for the whole of Britain.

The great European pioneer in the practical science of statistics was the Belgian mathematician and astronomer Adolphe Quételet. Instructed in the theory of probability by Laplace in Paris, Quételet used census statistics to test probability theory. From his experience in organizing the census of 1829 in Holland, and in collecting statistics for Belgium, he came to the enticing new notion of “moral statistics.” This was his name for the effort to quantify psychological facts and social customs. When he observed that if the height of a large number of men was charted on a graph, the distribution of human statures followed the normal-distribution curve, he came to his theory of the homme moyen, or average man. And from this concept he developed his “social physics,” which sought the “laws” of such phenomena as marriage, suicide, and crime. Statistics had become the data of a new social “science.”

FEDERAL POLITICS HAD committed us, from our national beginnings, to a special interest in numbers. One of the Great Compromises at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787, when the large and the small states agreed upon a two-branch federal legislature, established a House of Representatives where the people would be represented in proportion to population. And this, of course, required that the people be counted. “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers…. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law Direct” (art. I, sec. 2, para. 3). The federal census was not the first such head count, for there had been official counts in Virginia, in New France (later Quebec), in Sweden, and elsewhere; but our periodic national census was probably the first in modern times to become institutionalized, and this American example influenced the world.

The census of 1790 counted only total population, divided into white (male and female) and colored (free and slave); white males were divided into those above and those below sixteen years of age. Even before the second census, a movement headed by the American Philosophical Society and led by Vice-President Thomas Jefferson urged a more detailed census to discover the facts about the life span of Americans so these could be used for social measures to increase longevity. Consequently the census of 1800 broke down the white population (male and female) into five age groups. For the next half-century, census data continued to be gathered according to judicial districts by federal marshals who had no experience in such matters. The unit for gathering information was not the individual but the family.

Th epoch-making seventh census of 1850, when the official statistics of the United States began to enter the modern era, was the product of a symbolic collaboration between two able champions of statistics, one from the South and one from the North. James D. B. De Bow, who had been born in Charleston, South Carolina, was only thirty when he was named to superintend the United States census of 1850. He was already noted for his influential Commercial Review of the South and Southwest (founded in 1846), the largest circulating magazine in the South, which urged industrial development and diversification. An admirer of John C. Calhoun, a defender of Negro slavery, and a fervent Southern partisan, he had a warm feeling for his section and his past. And he saw statistics as an indispensable new tool. As professor of political economy (probably the first in the nation) in the new University of Louisiana in 1848, he also headed the new Louisiana Bureau of Statistics.

To advise him in Washington on the census of 1850, De Bow brought Lemuel Shattuck, who had recently succeeded in giving statistics a new prominence in the public life of Massachusetts. Like De Bow, Shattuck believed that the answer to all public questions lay in more facts, more precise facts, more up-to-date facts. A New Englander, Shattuck had briefly attended a preparatory academy, but he never went to college. After a short tour as schoolteacher he settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where he became a prosperous merchant and a leading citizen. On the Concord School Committee, Shattuck insisted that to provide better education, the committee needed more facts, and he tried to provide these facts in an annual report on the schools, which he himself prepared and published. As a result of Shattuck’s work, such reports were required by law throughout the state. After he moved to Boston in 1836, Shattuck was so successful as bookseller and publisher that at the age of forty-six he could retire to devote himself to public affairs. One of his projects, a history of Concord, convinced Shattuck of the need for better vital statistics; at that time births, deaths, and marriages were only haphazardly recorded.

Prodded by these experiences, Shattuck became a founder of the American Statistical Association; he then helped the Massachusetts Medical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to develop a new system for registering vital statistics. And he secured passage of the pioneer Massachusetts law in 1842 which required the uniform registration of vital facts.

In all this work Shattuck was bringing to fruition New England efforts reaching back to colonial times. Their remote New World situation had offered opportunities to experiment, and ever since the early eighteenth century, New Englanders had shown a special interest in public health. During the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721–22, Cotton Mather had collected statistics which showed that the calculated risk of death from the new technique of inoculation was far less than from cases of smallpox naturally contracted. This had opened new vistas for statistical analysis of public-health problems. Later in the century, Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (1784) used rudimentary statistics, which he displayed on a chart, to refute the unfounded European notion that in America, animals and men were stunted. The booster enthusiasms which once nourished legends of an American Fountain of Youth tempted latter-day city promoters to use figures, real or imaginary, to prove that in their Lexington, their Cincinnati, or their Denver, people lived longer and all things desirable were bigger and more numerous.

Others used figures to assess the actual probabilities of health and prosperity in different parts of the continent. Dr. Daniel Drake, for example, infected by booster enthusiasm for his Cincinnati, produced a pioneer Systematic Treatise, Historical, Etiological and Practical, on the Principal Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America, as they Appear in the Caucasian, African, Indian and Eskimoux Varieties of its Population (1850; 1854). About the same time, in Boston, Lemuel Shattuck was doing the best he could with the meager facts to help citizens understand their public-health problems.

The American Statistical Association, upon its founding in Boston in 1839, had set itself the task of collecting, interpreting, and diffusing statistics “as general and as extensive as possible and not confined to any particular part of the country.” In that year President Martin Van Buren had declared that the nation was not apt to legislate more intelligently until the census provided better statistics. The scholars of still another new science, attacking the nation’s “utter ignorance” of the simple facts of “longevity, social happiness, or domestic habits,” declared that political economy (later called “economics”) could never become scientific without a solid new base in statistics.

THE BOSTON CENSUS of 1845, which Shattuck himself directed, opened a new era in American statistics. As Shattuck explained, the census reported “the name and description of every person enumerated … among other characteristics specifying the birth place of each, and thus distinguishing the native from the foreign population.” And he prefaced these statistics with an important interpretive introduction. The new funds of facts like those which Shattuck gathered would make possible modern programs in public health. In 1849 Shattuck became chairman of a pioneering commission for a “sanitary survey” of Massachusetts. The commission’s report, written by Shattuck, used the newly gathered statistics as the basis for its fifty far-sighted recommendations for the improvement of public health.

Shattuck’s Boston census of 1845, then, became the prototype for the greatly enlarged federal census of 1850. And that seventh federal census marked an epoch in many ways. For the first time statistics for the whole nation were reported not by families but by individuals. The facts were no longer collected by local federal marshals who were not competent to evaluate the material and whose methods of tabulation were not uniform. Now the local “census takers” (an Americanism) merely filled out forms, which were then forwarded to the central office in Washington for uniform classification. The first six federal censuses had been confined, for all practical purposes, to a counting of the population. Now facts were gathered on the whole social and economic life of the nation: on agriculture and industry, on schools and colleges, churches, libraries, newspapers and periodicals, pauperism, crime, and wages. The seventh census schedules actually returned to the office in Washington were an unprecedented mass of 640,000 pages, which when bound came to some eight hundred volumes. The census had become a national inventory.

The bitter sectional debate over slavery was a battle not only of lawyers, ministers, moralists, and novelists, but also of statisticians. Numbers seemed somehow to offer self-evident answers to complicated social questions. From the raw material of this census of 1850, Hinton R. Helper, a North Carolinian, shaped his Impending Crisis of the South (1857), probably the most influential antislavery work of nonfiction. Helper aimed to prove with statistics that the South as a whole, and especially the free white laborer, was being impoverished by slavery. He therefore attacked slaveholders as the enemies of Southern prosperity. Because Helper was a Southerner, his book created a stir even greater than that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin five years before. And the Republican Party ordered one hundred thousand copies to support Lincoln in the campaign of 1860.

Helper’s cold-blooded use of statistics in a controversy where moral passions ran so high made his book all the more effective. But a parable of the perils of the new statistical morality appeared in Helper’s own career. After the Civil War he shifted his target away from the institution of slavery, and his later books were fanatically anti-Negro. He aimed (in his own words) “to write the negro out of America … and out of existence.” In another of his projects, he juggled statistics to prove that the salvation of the New World would be a railroad to run from Hudson’s Bay to the Strait of Magellan. He spent his private fortune on prizes for the best essays and poems on the subject, and he lobbied with monomaniacal zeal for the enterprise, which, he said, would make him “the new Christopher Columbus.” When the project came to nothing he was reduced to poverty and despair; he committed suicide and was buried in Washington, D. C., by strangers.

IN THE LATER DECADES of the century, American statistics became more copious and the new science grew in prestige. At the seventy-fifth anniversary of the American Statistical Association in 1914, Dr. S. N. D. North, the first head of a permanent census office (founded in 1902), divided all modern history “into two periods, the non-statistical and the statistical; one the period of superstition, the other the period of ascertained facts expressed in numerical terms…. The science of statistics is the chief instrumentality through which the progress of civilization is now measured, and by which its development hereafter will be largely controlled.”

Meanwhile, although Americans had made few significant contributions to statistical theory, they were showing themselves adept at developing new tools for collecting and correlating statistics. A crucial invention, without which the proliferating statistical communities would hardly have been possible, was made by an unsung American pioneer, Dr. Herman Hollerith. His new system translated statistics into punched holes in a nonconducting card, then counted and correlated the items by allowing an electric current to pass through the holes that were identically placed. His scheme, first used in the federal census of 1890, was not only a great labor-saver, but for the first time made possible quick and complex correlations. Now it was as easy to tabulate the number of married carpenters 40 to 45 years of age as to tabulate the total number of persons 40 to 45 years of age. Hollerith’s simple invention was the grandparent of the modern computer industry. His enterprise became part of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), which, with other similar firms, by the mid-twentieth century had made the hum of the computer heard throughout the land.

Numerous techniques for visualizing and dramatizing statistics for a still wider public were developed at the same time. Dr. Henry Gannett, a geographer, used novel devices for symbolizing census results in his Statistical Atlas for the Censuses of 1890 and 1900. Further advances were made by cartographers, especially those working for news magazines in the early twentieth century. A growing popular demand for current statistics on all sorts of subjects, from railroads to books, produced new statistical almanacs for every conceivable business, industry, trade, or profession. One of the most useful and influential of these, after its first appearance in 1878, was the Statistical Abstract of the United States, which appeared annually and became the standard national inventory. On the desks of men of affairs it now took its place beside a dictionary and a collection of familiar quotations as an indispensable new lexicon of American statistical communities.

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