Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Should We Trust in Numbers?

by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

The fundamental thing about any technology is that it alters our relationship to the world. One way to evaluate such alteration is to calculate the costs and benefits associated with the introduction of any new technology, keeping in mind that we human beings are very bad calculators of such things. In some instances, such as medical advances, we focus on the benefits with very little attention to the costs, while in others, such as splitting the atom, we worry about the costs while remaining ignorant of the benefits.

These are not simple calculations. In some instances the costs or benefits are obvious, and in others our ability to engage in such deliberation is affected not only by our short-term horizon of thinking, or by the incomplete information we have at our disposal, but most especially by our desire to secure our material comfort or convenience to the exclusion of all other considerations. That desire is the main cause of the shrinking of our horizons of thinking.

Take, for example, the advent of the cell phone. Originally a luxury item, it soon occupied every pocket and purse in America. People defended the significant expense by arguing that cell phones were essential ways to communicate in emergencies, or to stay in contact with children, or to get work done while driving. Among the many costs that were hidden were the extreme environmental impacts, the offshoring of production into horrific sweatshops, the increase in auto accidents, or the ways in which cell phone use might rewire our brains. Once introduced, the technology would not be given up easily, and so further interventions such as hands-free driving laws were required to try to provide restraints on the original intervention of the phone itself, with little thought given to any argument as to whether life would actually be better without the cursed instruments.

We could proliferate examples of this problem, but today I want to focus on a particular iteration to which we give little thought: the way abstract numbers alter our relationship to the world and to the social world. I am referring mainly here to the use of statistics as a way of ordering the world.

When I say these numbers are abstract, I mean by that something that can be demonstrated quite easily. Take our formulation 2+2=4. The obvious question would be: 2 what plus two what equals 4 what? 2 bananas plus 2 apples does not equal 4 oranges. The numbers no longer operate as modifiers of things in the world around us, but as nouns that have a status independent from our natural experience. Again, there are obvious benefits to this, but also hidden costs.

The costs become most discernible when we consider the use of statistics in our lives. And here’s the truth of the matter: there is hardly anything in our life that is not governed by statistical thinking. Our economy and politics largely run on statistics, which means they are themselves engaged in abstractions removed from everyday life. But we forget that statistics are a technology created by human beings designed, as all technologies are, to exercise control.

The authority of the technology is revealed in our inability to think outside of it. Insurance rates, public policy, election results, economic forecasts, medical care, and so forth all operate on the reverse process of aggregating data and then applying that aggregation back on the particular realities. That can only occur, however, if those particular realities are first turned into something quantifiable. Think, for example, of the way we think about education. The first thing we do is to try to figure out ways to measure student learning, be it via grades or standardized testing, we turn those measurements into numbers, we abstract and aggregate those numbers, and then loop them back through technologies of control (schools) back on to the students again.

My guess is that the reader might be saying “Well, how else will you do it?” And that’s the point: there are in fact other ways of doing it, but the authority of the technology is such that we have a hard time imagining what they might be. Even if we imagine other options, those options would have no public authority, for in a technocracy such as ours the only legitimate mode of authority is that which can operate with precise measurements. In a large, sprawling, diverse society, where trust is at a minimum, we come to believe that numbers are the only thing we can trust.

This is part of the argument made Theodore Porter in his wonderful book Trust in Numbers. (I am also an admirer of his The Rise of Statistical Thinking.) In the former book, he focuses on quantification as an historically-emergent “social technology” that gains currency during periods of political centralization and the development of large-scale economic organizations (such as industrialization), that transforms (indeed, even creates) the social sphere itself.

The key impulse leading to “trusting in numbers,” he argues, arises from a “technology of distance.”

In other words, distance creates a certain amount of distrust since local customs, actors, and practices no longer exercise their own authority. As authority becomes more centralized, it also becomes more regularized and more concerned about the problem of “subjectivity,” that is, the variations and difficulties associated with individual judgments or local idiosyncrasies.

Numbers create and transform “society,” reflecting a vast ambition that creates a loss of the continuity, mentoring, and wisdom involved in localized relationships that is particular but rich. Numbers, he argues, don’t just tabulate “things,” but they create social realities which try to eliminate subjectivity by replacing it with “objectivity.” They replace “judgment” with “measurement.” As the social sphere broadens and people have less and less knowledge of each other, the social trust required to make judgment and experience authoritative attenuates rapidly.

Furthermore, as wealth and power become concentrated those who possess it seek to impose uniform accounting on all other areas of life, whose recalcitrance can be tamed through the imposition of regimes of quantification. Impersonality, discipline and rules become the order of the day. Every human enterprise is controlled by systems of measurement.

“Measurement,” he writes, “aspired to independence from local customs and local knowledge.” It becomes a “technology of the soul” that operates as a mechanism of social control and a coordination of all human activity. (As an aside, it’s not inconsequential that freedom-loving Americans were the only industrial country to reject the metric system – that ugly creation of big-business and big-government – in favor of a time-honored system grounded in experience and intimately connected to the natural world. The rejection of the metric system is one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.)

Again, the key is distance, either geographical or sociological. Once the nation had become a sprawling enterprise with persons largely reduced to “citizens” and “workers,” each one replaceable, and administered over by a centralized bureaucracy, numbers became a way of both creating and managing the anonymity that increasingly marked our affairs. Even well-intended policies, addressing new needs that arose from the experiment in mass democracy and industrialization, drank from the same chalice. The social transformations that caused the problems also provided the solution; but the solutions, like the problems, only deepened social alienation and isolation. “Middle-class philanthropists and social workers used statistics to learn about kinds of people whom they did not know, and often did not care to know, as persons.”

Or, again: “…nineteenth century statisticians liked to boast, their science averaged away everything contingent, accidental, inexplicable, or personal, and left only large scale regularities.” The individual person was now a problem to be solved or an anomaly to be explained, but in any case the regime now run by “experts” had to apply its force to eliminate irregularities and make everything as uniform as possible.

Statistical thinking thus attempted to flatten out the nasty little distinctions among human beings (or institutions) by treating variations from the mean as if they were anomalies rather than interesting differences. For the statistical thinkers “the absence in question is the unique, interested, located individual.” It is “an ethic of renunciation” where what is being renounced is that which is most fully human. That the main actor of modern social science is the computer should tell us what we need to know.

Political thinkers had long believed that democracy would give way to tyranny, but they always assumed that tyranny would be flesh and blood and carrying a sword. Little did they realize it would come in electronic form and carrying a clipboard. It transforms the world it pretends to describe. In a democracy, with its emphasis on the equality of parts and its demands of fairness and impartiality, the temptation toward a technocratic regime of measurement becomes especially pronounced. Elections might make us feel as if we are exercising control over the vast measurement regime, but that regime is staffed by person who rule neither by election or divine right. They do everything by the numbers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What alternatives are there to deciding policy through statistical abstraction?
  2. Why did judgment and experience start becoming so suspect?
  3. If the above argument is correct, what can be done? How can democratic freedom and personal integrity be preserved?

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