Wednesday, October 10, 2018

No one is a statistic

I’m late to the party, but I've been thinking about the documentary “The Life Equation” about how people use data to decide make life-and-death decisions. The central example is a woman named Crecencia, a mother of seven who lives in rural Guatemala and has cervical cancer. The doctor treating her knows that screening other women for cancer is more cost-effective than treating this woman, and that the community doesn’t have enough money to fully fund both.

The filmmaker writes: “Crecencia’s life depends on decisions made by doctors and donors, decisions increasingly driven by Big Data. It’s a scientific, evidence-based approach that cuts through the emotion and promises to transform the lives of hundreds of millions. But who, and what, gets lost in the number crunching?”

The film is touching, depicting Crecencia’s prayers for healing, her relationship with her children, her fervent wish to stay alive. It asks how her doctor should decide between this individual patient and “statistics.”

Here’s the thing about those “statistics”: they’re all individuals.

The other women who don’t get screened, whose cancer isn’t caught in time? They’re people too. They have families. They want to stay alive too.

We’re more likely to help a person if we can see their face and know their name (sometimes called the “identifiable victim bias.”) People will actually give more money if they’re told it’s going to one child than to two children.

Animal advocates now consider it best practice to communicate about individual animals rather than undifferentiated masses of them. My brain has an easier time thinking about Lily the rescue piglet than about the 769 million pigs being raised around the world.

I think it’s fine to work with this reality of human thinking, and present examples of who will benefit from particular interventions. But we also need to examine our intuitions and realize that, even if we haven’t been presented with an individual example, effective interventions matter because they affect more individual people.

Every person in the world has their own oddities, preferences, and sense of humor. Everyone started as a baby, most with parents who memorized the swirl of hair on their scalp and the scent of their skin. Even people who aren’t born yet - if they come into being, they will have freckles, fears, favorite songs.

I think Christians are onto something in talking about people as “souls” rather than “population.” It helps our glitchy human minds see the worth of the whole by focusing on the worth of the parts.

The multitudes matter because each of us matters. No one is a statistic, but statistics are how we help more irreplaceable individuals.