DRMacIver's Notebook

Standardised Facts

Standardised Facts

From Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, page 80:

State simplifications have at least five characteristics that deserve emphasis. Most obviously, state simplifications are observations of only those aspects of social life that are of official interest. They are interested, utilitarian facts. Second, they are also nearly always written (verbal or numerical) documentary facts. Third, they are typically static facts. Fourth, most stylized state facts are also aggregate facts. Aggregate facts may be impersonal (the density of transportation networks) or simply a collection of facts about individuals (employment rates, literacy rates, residence patterns). Finally, for most purposes, stateofficials need to group citizens in ways that permit them to make a collective assessment. Facts that can be aggregated and presented as averages or distributions must therefore by standardized facts. However unique the actual circumstances of the various individuals who make up the aggregate, it is their sameness or, more precisely, their differences along a standardized scale or continuum that are of interest.

This is a very interesting passage that I think I probably just nodded and skimmed over when first reading this book. I find that often the random page approach is a good way of highlighting such passages.

I don't have a huge amount to say about this passage right now (because I'm ill and it's hot and as a result I am quite stupid today) but I feel like it's especially relevant right now during the COVID-19 epidemic, where we're seeing a lot of this sort of thing. Death rates, hospitalisation rates, etc. are very much an example of standardised facts, and are eliding a lot of the weird and very unpleasant ways in which people's COVID-19 symptoms differ.