Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Blaming the relatives of centenarians for exploiting the current social welfare system and defrauding the government by failing to report elderly family members’ deaths and then continuing to collect benefits meant for their care, or blaming the welfare system itself for being too prone to such abuse (“Centenarian probe: 200 not at home,” August 13th) may be correct arguments. But they also look like decoys to me because numbers are not universal constants, and each culture imagines, collects and uses statistics in its own manner to verify its own world view.
Giddy with its success in the boom years of the 1960s, 70s and 80s when all the indicators were flush with positive figures - Gross Domestic Product; life expectancy; schooling and literacy; infrastructure; industrial output and exports; trade surpluses; foreign currency reserves; savings rates; infant mortality; public health; international travel, etc.
Japanese numeracy and statistics data were nevertheless captives of a culture that rates appearance and form above reality and substance. So it is not surprising now to learn - at least in the case of centenarians - that no one actually checked to see if the numbers were true. Does it make us worry about what else is amiss? Probably not.
I think this deserves more deep reflection, at least as an epistemology exercise, as it is a sign of how what we think we know is wrong, even when we have numbers to prove it. Personally, I pretty much habitually take it for granted that everything we think we know is, in fact, wrong in some way. So news - surprising, shocking and bad - does not disappoint me so much as entertain me. But I could be wrong.
Published on Thursday, August 19, 2010 as “Worldview with shaky foundation.”
Statistics by themselves have no meaning Information has no meaning outside of context and human beings always contextualize things in story, or narrative form. That explains why scientists make no progress against religious “creationism” simply by “setting the record straight” with the correct information. The evolution vs. creation debate is a good example. Each side is expressing its story and the information from the opposing position does not fit their story, therefore no progress is made. Take another example: the persistent belief among many Americans that U.S. President Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that he was not born in the U.S. Both are completely false, but their persistence has less to do with the public’s reliance on information sources that it trusts than it has to do with available information fitting into the public’s story format.
National mythologies are the story format within which countries contextualize the world for themselves. So, being “leader of the free world” is the American story about itself. The Japanese story about itself it that it is an homogenous, middle-class country with the world’s highest life expectancy and greatest number of elderly to show for it. It may be true, but even if it is not factually true that is how information is inevitably bent, to conform to the form of the story and extend the boundaries of Life’s meaning.
I thought the Sunday, September 26th, 2010 letter “Suspicious statistics on well-being” by Karl Butler was very congruous with my letter. He asked “can we really rely on the ministry’s [the Health and Welfare Ministry] data or calculations?... Statistics that have national pride resting on them seem just too tempting not to tweak a bit.” Right on!