Log in Subscribe

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.

Wake-up call

Data as divinity, drivel or in between?


"The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” said Oscar Wilde. That's what I kept telling myself as I tried to meditate my blood pressure down after reading a recent letter to the editor in The Chief. It was written by a regular contributor whose judgment I respect, although we clash on some issues.

His response to my op-ed "Wag the Dog Dogfights" (May 8) gave my fight-or-flight hormones a test run. Being merely a mental encounter, I choose the middle ground to stay put and calmly explain.

The correspondent said that my reporting was poorly researched, harmful, perpetuated misinformation and added to mistrust of government. I hope he was right about the last one.

I had written that decisions to install traffic lights are often made in reaction to foreseeable tragedies, and that politicians basked in the sunlight of opportunity to heighten their civic virtue profile by playing, ex post facto, to media cameras and microphones.

My critic is a former Department of Transportation employee who for a while was in charge of data about pedestrian crossings and traffic volume, accident history, lanes and adjacent land use. He cited a tome called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which he called "the gold standard in determining whether or not a traffic sign is needed or warranted.”

Grownups know to be wary of "gold standards,” especially when such representations are made by the government or manufacturers of products. Such standards are notoriously fickle and subject to manipulation. An example is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is similarly trumpeted and discredited as a measure to assess and compare the performance of educational systems.

Whether data is divinity or fall-guy is a determination that is contrived by its handlers, who are at the beck-and-call of their own stake in the game. Applied statistics and psychometrics are often weaponized babble.

"Gold standards" are algorithms of computer science that are resistant to common sense, sympathy and often relevance. To be of even secondary value, they should be taken under advisement and ruled upon by discerning creatures with blood circulation.

The DOT presumably used the same infallible bible on data-gathering to decide where bike lanes belong. I have personally observed the fruit of their wisdom and been exasperated by it. Major roads have been split in half and reduced to one lane in each direction so that one or two cyclists, over the course of an entire day, can have equal space dedicated to them.

The letter writer conceded that "many elected officials like to take credit and apply pressure for new signals. But to their chagrin, local politicians have no influence…."  If that is so, then why are complaining community members constantly being exhorted to contact these people to get action about precisely such matters?

Despite the weight given by the DOT to what they call "intersectional geometry" (the fancy language is supposed to legitimize it) decisions are driven by non-sentient data. If the data shows no fatalities at an intersection, perhaps by miracle of chance, it is safe enough, so far as the agency is concerned, because they have covered themselves.

Every agency has a rubric or data-based bailout handy to justify its practices and defer its liability when things don't work out. Bureaucrats should be called the Adhesive Brigade, because they are experts at making red tape stick.

Data is the "get out of jail" card when tragedies, especially the avoidable and inevitable ones, are investigated and it is necessary to point fingers to make good an escape from accountability. It is a recipe for dealing with political pressure that can be seasoned to taste. Like spaghetti sauce.

Relying solely on data is an abrogation of the duty to be humanly answerable. Skepticism of data is warranted. If it can withstand scrutiny, it may earn acceptance. But the means and motivations matter.

The letter writer says that DOT workers are hard-working, and that New York is a great city. No argument there. 

But he contends that it is an "urban myth" that politicians are primarily interested in exploiting any circumstance that will boost the perception of their leadership, even if it means grandstanding and rushing to the scene of an accident like a tow-truck driver on commission. 

Although that is an extreme and relatively rare scenario, it is an example of a template reflex that comes with the career territory of politicians. 

Spokespeople for city agencies and departments are also coached in giving false assurances and sounding like they care. Gullible citizens can also dial the city's 311 number, which does a bang-up job nurturing the illusion of streamlined efficiency.

Neither data nor hapless and unearned trust can set us free. Those who believe it does are prisoners of their own liberation. 

Data should be used by people, rather than people being used by data. The value of data as a tool for determining sound public policy is a bigger issue than the squabble between my critic and me.

He accuses me of stating "falsehoods.” Perhaps, without realizing it, he means inconvenient truths. The meanings are different to different people who nonetheless share the same intractable sincerity. 

As impassioned rivals, we should be chivalrous and take a page from Random House founder Bennett Cerf, who proved that estrangement could bring thinking people together.

He was an archetypal free-speech champion who discovered and published many of the greatest 20th century authors. He waged the fight that overcame the ban on the importation of James Joyce's supreme masterpiece “Ulysses,” which had been banned as "pornographic.” It was also deemed "unparlorlike.” 

Cerf was best known as a panelist on the television show “What's My Line,” which ran for 17 years in the 1950s and ‘60s and makes for addictive YouTube viewing. He was an emphatic political liberal, but he was liberally minded as well. Much as he loathed Ayn Rand's extreme philosophy and poet Ezra Pound's fascism, he published them both, not out of a cynical entrepreneurial profit motive, but in faith that civilized debate can heal and enlighten.

He was an alumnus of Columbia University and revered its legacy, long before its about-face descent into ivy-league hellfire.

If the letter-writer who vilified me and I were to shoot off our mouths at each other from adversarial foxholes, no doubt there'd be no risk of being hit by friendly fire. And yet, strange as it sounds, I'd have his back.

Such is the conundrum of respect.

We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here