This is a series of posts from a book I’m in the process of writing. I’ll be posting more as various chapters are developing, not in any particular order.
Please. Let me be clear right from the start. I don’t dislike or distrust numbers. I find them elegant and useful and eminently important. I’m even “good” at math (or was back in high school) and I’m proficient in Excel so my issues are not that I can’t comprehend or work with numbers.
Like many people, I find numbers reassuring — and therein lies the problem. When you see a numerical “fact” doesn’t it impart a little satisfaction? “Gasoline is now $3.67 a gallon (I live in San Francisco). Well. OK. That’s that. No wonder if things seem more expensive — they are.” I know the price of gas now — no more wondering. “Unemployment is at 3.7%? I thought things were worse. I’ve heard news about how jobs are scarce. Wow, I guess things aren’t as bad as I thought.” The relief that comes isn’t just from thinking the country is doing better than expected, it’s partly that I now know the answer and it’s discrete and convenient. I know something and that feels satisfying. If I can remember the figure, I can share it with others and feel knowledgeable.
This opens the door to a big room with a lot more doors, many of which aren’t even visible. What does it mean to know something or to be knowledgeable? Is the number that I know really telling me what I think it is? Do I know the context for how much unemployment there is in the USA? Does it matter what time of year the figures were drawn? (It does.) Is everyone counted? (They aren’t.) Is this number comparable to, say, the same figure 20, 40, 60, or 100 years ago? (It isn’t.)
Numbers are reassuring. Just seeing them gives us the feeling that the unknown may be knowable. Even when the numbers are bad or not what we want to hear, at least we now know that they are. In this way, they’re seductive — very much so and potentially misleading.
Most everyone has heard and understands that “numbers can lie.” Numbers, by themselves, aren’t relevant nor meaningful. But, beyond this, numbers have a great power to convince. When your friend quotes an economic figure to you — one that seems to contradict your personal experience — how do you respond? She’s got the number. Who are you to say…