Unless you’re one of my new data scientist friends, you’re likely to be at least ambivalent, and at most cautious around numbers. Throughout most of my life, I’ve been surrounded with people of letters – or actually people of meanings who would eschew particular words in a relentless search for what the strings of arbitrary alphabet letters actually stand for. From these people, I learned to be suspicious of assumed links between signifiers and signifieds (I bow to de Saussure). Now I’m submerged in a world of numbers where, it seems, everyone but me just takes them for granted. But this hasn’t put my wincing suspicion to sleep – quite the contrary, I grow more and more suspicious of numbers. Hear me.
Numbers impose value
Perhaps they don’t mean it, but numbers don’t just order or organise things, they assign values to them. Being the first in a competition will always mean more than being the fifth, and something worth 15,320 of any currency will always be more valuable than a thing worth 320. And I find this suspicious. The relationship between number and value became so intertwined that it’s nearly impossible to disassociate the two. You can’t really say you were fifth in a competition without feeling like you’re somewhat losing, that whatever you did was somewhat less valuable than the four people ahead of you. But how is it possible to translate diverse concepts such as value into numbers and then go even further, claim to discern the differences in value between the fourth and fifth contestant?
Numbers hide a lot of work
Most numbers that we encounter in our day-to-day lives, for example numbers of steps in our health apps, numbers of unemployment in our countries, numbers of satisfied customers who would definitely recommend this company to a friend… They all hide immense quantities of work required to materialise the digits. And this work goes far beyond simple counting, it often involves sophisticated infrastructures, algorithms, nuanced statistics and countless counting. You see this restaurant has an average rating of 4.3 out of 5, but you don’t see the layers and layers of work that went into compiling the neat number. Why does it make me suspicious? Because I can’t know who worked on these numbers, what decisions they made, what they included and excluded, what were their definitions, whether they like the same food as I do. I don’t think of all this work, and all I’m getting is an illusion of objectivity.
We often don’t understand how numbers work
Have you ever wondered if 20 degrees Celsius is twice as warm as 10? It’s not a basic arithmetic question, if it were then yes, 10 times 2 definitely gives 20. But I was nearly 30 when I was first made aware that hey, there are some numbers that just don’t work like this. And if you’re a swimmer, as I read, you need to know that 10 degrees is not twice as hot as 5 degrees (TL;DR: 10 degrees Celsius is in fact only about 1.8 per cent warmer than 5 degrees). And this can get even more complicated. We’ve been lied to, all our lives!
Numbers often mean power
Relatedly, it may be in someone’s interest to make sure we – people who’ve been repeatedly told they’re not good at maths and they’re very gifted in other areas instead – are kept in the dark and our dark fears of mathematics are duly cultivated. In a world where a STEM degree is a near equivalent of peerage, well some people need to be kept where they belong. And on a more serious note, it really may be easier to manage and navigate large populations if they don’t question numbers such as GDP or unemployment too much, but are sufficiently apprehensive to agree to tax increases and similar. Enough to make just about any statistic suspicious.
Numbers may not even really exist
Are numbers even real? Type this question in a search engine and you’ll see that it’s not a silly fantasy of a humanities major. Scores of mathematicians, statisticians and philosophers of science have been pondering the same thing. If they have doubts, why would I just accept them as real? The shaky ontology of numbers is a good reason to be suspicious of them, if you ask me.
And with this very suspicious stance, I shall leave you to ponder. And I promise I won’t check the number of views on this article, since it wouldn’t be commensurate with its value anyway.