The Public Interest

Statistical jargon

Charles Murray

Spring 1999

ALAIN Desrosières, Administrator of Frances Institut National de la Statistique et des Ẻtudes Ẻconomiques, had the attractive idea of combining a history of the mathematical development of statistics with a history of their use by governments. The result, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning, † is the kind of book that I would ordinarily recommend as professional reading for today’s quantitative policy analysts. Among its other uses, such a history reminds us how new and immature our profession is. Startlingly few national data were supplied on an annual basis until recently.In the United States, a statistic as basic as the unemployment rate wasn’t invented until the 1930s. Analysts could not track annual changes in family income until the late 1940s.National breakdowns of socioeconomic indicators by race did not become available until the 1950s.

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