Real Numbers

It seems an unfortunate and totally counter-productive issue. I’m finding that people are unwilling to believe in numbers. As if any set of numbers were just a template of lies. I’m seeing it in every community meeting, in every policy discussion. Anytime a number is presented as evidence, some faction rears up and insists it isn’t real. 

Working in local journalism is a free ticket to the circus; the endlessly fascinating perspective of human behavior, how it affects public policy, and then, how that policy affects behavior. Big circles; three rings. 

Consider  the Racial Profiling Report from the CCPD, the MOVE Project, and the CCUSD school calendar. 

The rage against numbers is really a proclamation of ignorance. Statistics are created so the we have a means of measuring what matters to us. Any time we are presented with a set of statistics, I’m hearing people say that they are biased, slanted, and incorrect. Statistics can be – but consider the odds.  If all the numbers we use to reflect information were wrong, we wouldn’t be using them as our standard for making choices, right? 

When I published some numbers in regard to the MOVE transit project some months ago, someone on social media called me a liar. I was wildly amused, and slightly alarmed. These numbers were not data that I made up out of thin air – any time Culver City Crossroads uses numbers, those numbers are closely checked. I ask my sources what their sources are. I question the data that created those numbers, and the metrics used to measure. 

What I’m hearing behind the claims that “those numbers are all wrong” is both distrust and a lack of understanding. The stubborn panic of “I don’t know what that means, so someone is lying” shows an unwillingness to step back and reflect. 

At the Culver City Police Department community meeting on racial profiling data, there was an appropriate concern over what was being measured and how. The CCPD report, which covered 2022, did not match up with the report from the State of California, which covered 2021, and was not formatted along the same template. It wasn’t quite comparing apples to oranges, but it was at least comparing Red Delicious to Granny Smiths. Anyone looking at both of these reports could have questions. 

Dr. Luther Henderson, a long time community activist, offered Mark Twain’s quote “There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics.” It’s funny, but also entirely unhelpful to speak to a meeting based on a presentation of data and say ‘numbers are dishonest.’

The  difference between the state report and the CCPD report could be sweeping racist police behavior under the rug, or it could be evidence that there has been improvement in changing police behavior. 

Numbers reflect priorities. The city council’s decision to change the MOVE project is going to be very, very expensive; the city may have to return a half a million dollars in grant money to LA Metro, and the legal battle and probable Environmental Impact Report will likely cost many millions. In the meanwhile, nothing on the ground can change until the City Attorney gets some data from Transportation and Public Works as to the legal requirements for the EIR. And that will be about numbers. 

The Culver City Federation of Teachers is upset with the school district; insulted over being asked to put in additional time for less than the standard rate of pay. That’s a very simple formula to understand, and most of us would be just as chaffed if we we required to do so. The district administration is saying they can’t afford to pay more. The union is saying you are spending too much on other things. This is precisely how number reflect priorities. 

It’s one thing to call into question how a set of statistics was arrived at – that’s actually a crucial part of trusting any set of numbers. What is being measured and how? The CCPD needs an accurate reflection of accountability and the CCFT needs a working deal. But the council’s decision to change the MOVE project – despite all the good numbers that came from the city’s own report – that one doesn’t add up. 

From my seat at the circus, the school district can reconfigure their budget, the police can agree to get on the same page   with Sacramento, and the city council can burn through the entire General Fund just because they feel like it. Because – real estate.

What I see is the council is reflecting the same ignorance and mistrust as all the other people who don’t believe in numbers. The crucial numbers are the set behind climate change, because if it’s 140 degrees here in the summer a decade from now, all this real estate may be worthless, and no amount of traffic mitigation will be needed. 

An essential part of journalism is being able to look at information and not get angry or paranoid that it is being created out of malice. What is the background? Who is framing the argument? What’s needed is more data, better statistics, and yes, real numbers. 

Believe me. 

Judith Martin-Straw




The Actors' Gang