Data Denial and America’s Epistemic Crisis

Guest blog post by Stephen Berry, author of Count the Dead: Coroners, Quants, and the Birth of Death as We Know It.

In Count the Dead, Stephen Berry shows how a network of coroners, court officials, and state and federal authorities developed methods to track and reveal patterns of dying. These officials harnessed these records to turn the collective dead into informants and in so doing allowed the dead to shape life and death as we know it today.

Resistance to data collection has been endemic to American history. The first-ever census of the United States, taken in 1790, is a list of (mostly) white men’s names—heads of households with their dependents and enslaved population enumerated and unnamed beneath them. This simple fact, the data structure of the census, tells you something critical about America in the period. The word ‘husband’ comes from the Old Norse hús (house) coupled to bóndi (tiller of the soil). In its very etymology, ‘husband’ is the center of the house, and the house is the center of economic activity. The etymology of ‘wife’ is very different—it simply means ‘woman.’ These etymologies lend context to the term ‘household,’ which encompassed a husband, a wife and children, and the (enslaved) servants that a husband’s hús protected (and exploited). The word ‘hold,’ like the word ‘keep,’ implied a place of physical protection, the penumbra of safety around an (ostensibly) powerful male. ‘Hold’ had other, equally relevant meanings: “to have or keep in the hand; keep fast; grasp; to keep in a specified state or relation.” In 1790 (and through 1840) the state treated the ‘household’ as the irreducible data unit of American life; it functioned as the atom before the discovery of subatomic particles.

In 1850, census superintendent Joseph C. J. Kennedy proposed to split the atom. He suggested that Congress collect names and information about every man, woman, and child in America (excepting the Native Americans, who would remain an exception for a very long time). Even so, the very enslavers who had declared slavery a ‘positive good’ were apoplectic. What might such data reveal about the massive dislocation of enslaved families or the true paternity of enslaved children? As soon as statisticians sought to gather the data that might prove them right or wrong about the benignity of enslavement, they kneecapped the statisticians and deep-sixed any effort to plumb the numbers.

This pattern has repeated itself throughout our history right up to the present day. In 1986, Arthur Kellermann published a modest study in the New England Journal of Medicine: For every time someone committed a gun-related homicide in self-defense, the same sample of guns produced 43 suicides, criminal homicides, or mortal accidents. Put another way, guns in the home were 43 times more likely to produce a sad and unintended outcome than an outcome the NRA would celebrate. Kellermann sought only to treat guns as a public health issue, but his findings threatened a central tenant of the NRA’s philosophy: the gun as a pure ‘good.’ In 1996 Republican Congressman Jay Dickey successfully introduced a rider into an omnibus spending bill stating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The result was a ‘chilling’ effect on research, and for twenty years, public health officials were effectively hamstrung from gathering data about gun-related homicides and suicides.

In 2020, testing for COVID-19 in the United States fell radically behind that of any comparable country. “Testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump told the crowd in Oklahoma. “Here’s the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases [so] I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’” “Trump wants to keep people from getting tested so the official case load in the U.S. remains artificially low,” reported Amanda Marcotte for Salon. “There’s no need to tiptoe around the situation here. Trump … wants to artificially deflate a number he thinks makes him look bad.”

Data denial is not unique to the United States. Statistics are central to how a state sees (the words are etymologically related for a reason), but the corollary is that statistics are central to how a state un-sees. As COVID ravaged India, the Centre for Global Development challenged the official numbers being reported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, suggesting that the real figures were ten times higher. India is in “data denial,” lamented Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan. “It’s a complete massacre of data.” When Rana Ayyub, a Mumbai-based investigative journalist, tweeted out the truth about India’s COVID statistics, her tweets were deleted. “The Indian government is hellbent on hiding real numbers,” she said. “Nothing has gone right here…. What I as a journalist am witnessing … it’s nothing less than a carnage.”

“I hope I am over wary,” said Abraham Lincoln in his 1838 Lyceum Address, but “there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the … growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of sober judgment.” Sober judgment was what Lincoln consistently found most wanting in his fellow Americans. Calling for 100,000 troops in June 1862, Lincoln lamented to Secretary of State William Henry Seward that the act would surely result in a “general panic and stampede” even though it was only what was logical and necessary to bring the war to a more rapid, successful close. “So hard is it,” Lincoln said, “to have a thing understood as it really is.” So hard, indeed.

Today’s resistance to datafication comes from the same place it always has: the recognition that good data exposes bad-faith arguments. This isn’t how science is supposed to work. If, as a society, we can somehow justify enslaving people or bearing the burden of first-grade gun slaughters or dying in droves rather than wear a mask, that may be our democratic right. But we do not get to not count the dead because death records have doubled the length of our lives, slayed smallpox, inoculated us against measles, mumps, and rubella, put niacin in our bread so we’d stop dying of pellagra, and put fluoride in our water so we’d have teeth beyond the age of forty. Caught in a cultural backwash of anti-masking, anti-vaxxing, ‘fake news,’ and ‘reality wars,’ America is in the midst of an epistemic, existential crisis. Having brought most major diseases to heel thanks to good data, we have weaponized a disease of our own making: ignorance.

Stephen Berry is Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at University of Georgia.