Statistics: The Subtle Tool

Today’s post is written by Meghan Ryan Guthorn, an accessioning archivist at Archives II in College Park

In archives, as in books, it is important not to judge the content by the cover. Even the records series with the driest names can be home to some of the most fascinating pieces of history.

The President’s Commission on Federal Statistics was formed by President Nixon in 1970 to conduct a comprehensive review of the Federal statistics programs. The Commission was tasked with surveying the statistical community at large for advice and suggestions for improvements in existing statistical programs.

Dr. Stanley Lebergott contacted statisticians in the public and private sectors asking for advice. Responses were many and varied, but some predominate themes emerged: the government should collect more data, and more frequently. For example, the 10 year census cycle was not capturing the complexities of a rapidly growing and changing American landscape. Many respondents argued for a 5 year census cycle.

Some of those contacted provided only brief responses, indicating that they had no advice to give. Some of those who couldn’t provide advice recommended Dr. Lebergott contact their colleagues, who might be better able to help.

At least one respondent acknowledged that he could probably help the Commission in its work, but refused to do so. Dr. John W. Lamperti, professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College noted that he had received the Commission’s request for advice on the same day he learned of the United States bombings in Laos. “Statistics,” he wrote “is a means, not an end, and as such it can be used for good or ill. If a tool is sharpened, it has a greater capacity to be employed at the discretion of its wielder. […] at this time the United States is under control of short-sighted, immoral and irresponsible men. It seems to follow that increasing the efficiency of an important instrument of the Federal Government may actually be contrary to the best interest of the country.”

Dr. Lamperti further noted that a major function of the Federal Statistics Program is improving the efficiency of the military. “Since these same military forces are being employed for an aggressive and atrocious war against small countries which have not harmed us, I do not want to see their efficiency improved,” he wrote.

The Records of the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics is not a place where you would expect to find such a passionate argument against United States military intervention in Southeast Asia.  But that’s half the fun of the National Archives – finding interesting things in the places least expected.

Dr. Lamperti’s letter, and other responses to the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics can be found in RG 220 Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, 1893-2008, American Statistical Association Fellows Letters (Entry A1 37180 C, NAID 6919428).

2 thoughts on “Statistics: The Subtle Tool

  1. Great find, Meg! I can imagine President Nixon being shown this and muttering into the tape: “D@#$&d eggheads, think they’re so smart…” The tape system was installed in February 1971.

  2. Very interesting. During the Vietnam War, the military made unprecedented and extensive use of new computing technology and data analysis. I wonder to what degree Dr. Lamperti knew that. Some of the military data used for statistical analysis during the Vietnam War can be found in NARA’s electronic records holdings in Record Groups 218, 330, and 472, to name a few.

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