Data Don’t Bleed

I spent several hours today preparing a short article on defense spending for The Beacon, updating similar articles I wrote in 2004 and 2007. The subject matter required me to do a fair amount of work that most people no doubt would consider tedious—locating and cross-checking data, performing various arithmetic operations, checking my figures again and again to ensure their accuracy. I have been doing this sort of work off and on ever since my college days, and strange to say, I rather enjoy it. I used to joke with my grad students that “I’m what you might call a data man, Jack” (with apologies to Group Captain Lionel Mandrake).

Today, however, as I was working along, my mind seized on something I had never dwelt upon. Numbers, data checking, mathematical operations—these things are abstract and in themselves completely lifeless, regardless of the human qualities or quantities to which they sometimes relate. One can work on the figures themselves without being drawn, perhaps unwillingly, into reflections on distressing things: loss, disappointment, pain, desperation, sorrow, death. Perhaps this disjunction between the black-and-white of numbers and numerical computations, on the one hand, and the exquisitely varied coloration of human life and death, on the other, explains the origin of the expression “cold, calculating killer.”

At this point in my reflections, I could not help recalling Robert Strange McNamara. (Was it simply a coincidental family oddity—his mother’s maiden name—that denominated him strange, or was his middle name divinely ordained to serve as a warning?) McNamara was a promising young man, but the big impetus to his later career achievements came during World War II, when he impressed his superiors while serving in the air force as a bombing efficiency expert. I wonder if he ever thought, while examining his data on the results of the U.S. incendiary bombing of the highly flammable Japanese cities, about the human beings—the old women, the infants and little kids, and all of the others who had done so little to deserve their fiery fate—who were suffering the unimaginable agonies of being terribly burned or of seeing their loved ones burned to death and torn apart by blasts. Or did the up-and-coming young officer think only about the ratio of X to Y during his working hours, and then stop by the officers’ club for a stiff drink or two before dozing off between clean sheets?

I don’t pretend to know what passed through his mind, or through the minds of countless other men who played similar roles amid the madness of war. I do know that many people have the capacity to keep troubling thoughts out of the forefront of their minds, to avoid dwelling on things they tell themselves they cannot do anything about in any event, and thus to steer clear of speaking or even thinking about exactly what they are doing.  This self-protective evasiveness may explain why soldiers so often speak not of causing horrific deaths and destruction, but of “getting the job done” so they can return home for a slice of blueberry pie with their wives or sweethearts.

Data, then, may serve as soporifics—medicinal tablets that keep our minds off things about which we dare not think too hard or too long. Even then, however, we may be left with Hamlet’s ominous worry, for in that sleep, what dreams may come?  Whether nightmares disturbed McNamara’s slumber during World War II or later, when he was secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, with responsibility for the B-52s employed to turn immense swaths of land into carpet-bombed hell, I do not know.

I do know, however, that in the 1960s he surrounded himself with “whiz kids” who were devoted to bringing their “planning, programming, and budgeting system” to bear on getting “more bang for the buck.” People who knew McNamara’s background were surely not surprised. “Cold, calculating killers” – can anyone honestly deny that this term applies in an altogether literal way to these men. And who would have expected anything else? Hadn’t they already honed their skills while working for the RAND Corporation, where they had learned to speak “rationally” of megadeaths and to conclude with numerical precision that if in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets, we suffered 100 million deaths and they suffered 150 million deaths, we would have “won the war”?

Data are fine things; I’ve devoted much of my professional life to their examination and analysis. Yet it behooves all of us to realize that data may sometimes clothe madness or veil inhumanity, and to beware the power of numbers to lull us into an immoral sleep.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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