Headmaster's Thoughts: October 2021

When I was about eight years old, my father pointed out to me a headline in the London Evening Standard newspaper. It read: “Jewish Black Marketer arrested”. My father’s very valid point was that the race or religion of the culprit was irrelevant. An individual was arrested for a crime. Period! His religion had nothing to do with what he did. Or were they trying to smear a group? (No credit for the answer!)

When did we stop treating people as individuals? Why are we so prone to stereotype races and religions? Did we not learn our lesson from the evils of slavery and Nazism?  Yet, if you spend too much time online, you would think that one group controls Hollywood, all muggers belong to another group, and every terrorist has the same religion. All of it is not only untrue, but biased in an inflammatory way. And the worst thing is that some extremists quote statistical “facts”. If you ever want to be dissuaded by “facts” which are plain wrong, may I suggest the book Spurious Connections by Tyler Vigen, published by Hachette Books in 2015.  Mr. Vigen (a Harvard law student at the time) used a computer to overlay graphs to show connections that prove the error of statistics. For instance, the graph of seven years of Cosmopolitan Magazine revenue is virtually identical to the amount of coal imports to Germany. The sale of midsize vans has a graph, over a slightly longer period of time, that almost exactly mirrors the number of Krispy Kreme Donut stores. And the graph of the net loss of Pandora (the streaming music service) over eight years, correlates precisely to the average age of New York Yankee batters for the same years.
There are 200 pages of this stuff. Two hundred nearly identical graphs of things like Ben Affleck’s movie appearances matching the number of accidental poisonings by pesticide. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “There are three types of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We live in a misinformation world where conspiracy theories abound. Remember the idiot who carried a loaded rifle into a Washington DC pizzeria (having driven 360 miles videotaping himself saying what he was going to do) because there was a conspiracy theory that Hilary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of it. The man’s name was Edgar Welch, and he is now out of prison. He believed that the words “cheese pizza” were code words for “child pornography”, and he got this nugget of misinformation from Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit posts.
For 53 years, I have urged our community to see each student as an individual. One who has nothing to do with the fake stereotypes that the media (particularly the online fringe media) would have us believe. Yes, Nicholas Cage films do statistically (over 10 years) correlate in a graph almost identically to the number of swimming pool drownings in the US, but I am not going to hold Nicholas Cage responsible.
Of course there are real correlations. If it is cloudy, the chances of rain are higher. If you drive a car, the chance that you will get into a car accident is higher. Hot beverages sell more in cold weather, just as cold beverages do better in hot weather. But causation is different from correlation.
So, in this anxious time in our Nation’s history, let me ask my fellow educators to treat every student as an individual. Let us expand our view of our difficult past and let us not limit ourselves to the history of one group. Let us appreciate the differences among us. Life is just too damn short to blame Nicholas Cage.
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep