Ordinal Experience

On a scale from 1-7, how religious are you?

Yet another example of how I try to both use this blog as a tool for procrastination, a way to apply concepts I am (supposed to be) learning in my Master’s course, and a way to vent my brain.

How much do politics influence your life? 
1 – Not at all.
2 – Does not influence much
3 – Neither influences nor does not influence
4 – Influences somewhat
5 – Influences entirely

Ordinal data (noun): a statistical data type consisting of numerical scores that exist on an arbitrary numerical scale where the exact numerical quantity of particular value has no significance beyond its ability to establish a ranking over a set of data points.

Before the past few weeks, I had never taken a statistics course in my life. I am not a worshipper at the church of math; when it comes to numbers and calculations, I am the petulant toddler being dragged into Ash Wednesday service kicking and screaming.  For the duration of this module I faded in and out of calculation consciousness, thankful for the respite of qualitative analysis — until further terms like axial or provisional coding came into play, further restricting unscientific bounds in order to make sure I pass my thesis next year.

For this most recent (and thankfully finished) module, Social Science Methods for Journalists, we were segregated into small study groups.  After lectures twice per week, we would meet and discuss the material covered in class, and answer series of questions for casework that was due that evening.  My lovely group spent a great deal of time sharing and partaking of food (earning us the moniker “The Snack Team”), but we also spent a small while debating the differences in levels of measurement — that is, whether research questions asked were of nominal, ordinal, interval, or ratio measurement.

The nuances between the terms were murky; we found ourselves adapting the qualifying mantras of our instructors, trying to find exceptions and arguments for the sake of, well, nothing in particular, but seeking a basic understanding of what was put in front of us.

By the time we took the exam this past Monday morning to the tune of falling snow and backpacks full of (yet-to-be-opened) beer bottles, we had a handle on things, at least as far as these terms went.  Nominal deals with specific names.  Interval with equidistant information without a solid zero point.  Ratio with a real zero.  And then ordinal, whose rankings are wholly subjective, and more oft than not leaving me questioning the quality of the data when you ask someone to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10.

My eight will not be your eight.  Our ones or our tens may not even be the same.  Such subjectivity may be applicable to data sets and pie charts, but is difficult if not impossible to apply such levels of measurement to people, actual people, in real life.  Relating it to relativity, specifically cultural relativity (let’s not get too far into science with Relativtheorie or Relativitätstheorie), the notion of qualifying every thing to every person is maddening.  You would not get anywhere with your research if you were constantly trying to account for infinite control variables.  You have to draw the line somewhere.

I find myself walking a network of qualification tightropes when asked questions by strangers, acquaintances, hell, even close friends.  I even got a cheesy class award in one of my political science seminars for using such diplomatic language during an exam debate.  This word-vomit sort of speak can cross from a web of ropes – retracing arguments to buy time to say something meaningful – to a maze of walls, wholly obstructing my opinions and feelings from whoever is unfortunate enough to try to look on in the first place.  Either way, no one wins.

I don’t know if this phenomenon is unique to my generation and the ones following it, morphed by years of accelerating, expanding, and intensifying usage of unsocial social media, but what I do know (or at least, what I can render plausible), is that people seem to cling to their thoughts like drowning men, in that at one point or another we all fear our words professing things to cast shadow on our persons.  We don’t walk on egg shells, we erect fortresses around them and prevent all possible ambling.

One of my favourite quotes is “better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion” by the late American writer, Edward Abbey.  Seeming like common sense, this small bit of wit stalks the intentions of writers, academics and journalists alike.  What do we observe?  What do we report?  How can we describe reality to others, particularly those who are ignorant or even desire to remain willfully belligerent?

Diplomacy alert: this quandary is not something I seek to answer.  It is a constant internal struggle, bereft of conscious and yet invariably tied to it.  Whether or not you don’t work even remotely within the ballpark of journalism, we are all faced with the daily qualification of reconciling our own experiences with that of those around us.  We choose to open or close ourselves off to the relativity of reality.  We choose to see, to act.  Or not.

A mantra I have adapted for myself over the past three years is: “Communicate. Educate. Advocate.”  Three simple words in a very specific order, together with the goal of informing and changing the perceptions of others, about whatever you like.  Rape culture, racism, declining political morality, proper definition of “biscuits,” nearly anything.  Relating Variables Z-1 through Z-17 is handy for the sake of understanding and relaying information, but at some point you have to step up and speak out.  You have to be willing to put you, your opinions and observations, even your reputation on the line to get to the truth.

It is especially difficult when these truths are not self-evident.  Possibly more so when we actively deny what is in front of, or within us.

Thank goodness for the scientific method, right?

What it comes down to is, it’s all well and good to be perceptive to others, in journalism, debate and life in general.  But we ought not to focus too much on the perceptions, lest we lose ourselves and forget reality.  We should be unafraid to express ourselves, our truths; to go out and shout from the rooftops the injustices we encounter in our daily lives, and to be conscious of the impacts these actions – and our inaction – could have.

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