In our nation there is an accelerating obsession with public opinion polls, standardized tests, employee evaluation systems and a multitude of numerical measurements of every aspect of human existence.
Television and newspaper coverage of national elections has become little more than a blizzard of polling data. Education policy is influenced heavily by tests which purport to measure student performance and potential. Our preferences for everything from beauty products to food are endlessly surveyed as corporations compete to be the first to market what they hope will be the next profit blockbuster.
Do all these constant measurements, polls and statistics add up to a true picture? Do they really produce reliable data on which to base national policies that affect every citizen? Do they measure the right factors or do they measure the wrong things and miss the values and complexities of human life?
One person who raises serious questions about our preoccupation with mathematical measurements of human behavior is David Boyle, editor of New Economics magazine and frequent writer on economics for The Guardian and New Statesman and other newspapers and magazines. Boyle has put his theory forward in a highly readable (and often humorous) new book: The Sum of Our Discontent—Why Numbers Make Us Irrational published by Texere of New York and London
“The trouble is, brandishing numbers doesn’t work anymore,” Boyle says. “They mean little and they have plunged us into a world packed full of figures where almost every aspect of our lives is measured—from our
purchases to our insurance risk—and transformed into numerical half-truths.”
Boyle argues that the process of “counting everything is changing human nature and making us mechanical.” He pictures a dismal future:
“We will soon have a workforce recruited by categorizing aspects of personalities on a scale of 1 to 10. We will have our nannies graded for their caring abilities on the basis of some kind of check list. We will have children who can pass exams but have no judgment. We will measure all our institutions by numerical “best practice” standards and wonder vaguely why nobody innovates anymore. And we will have doctors who translate our symptoms into numbers before feeding them into the computer. We will be turning ourselves so slowly into machines.”
Corporations have already found the era of “numbers-first” useful in their battles against regulations including those involving public health, safety and environmental protections. These regulations must pass a “cost-benefit” test at the Office of Management and Budget and, all too frequently, the costs are inflated and the benefits to society underestimated.
Here’s the way Boyle views the effect of cost-benefit analyses:
The problem, as the cost-benefit people found, is that economists measure and celebrate the wrong things because money isn’t a very good measuring rod. Somehow you have to use it as a guide, but if you take it too seriously, it can have a perverse effect on the world. It measures Wall Street pretty well, but it ignores some of those things that are most important—bringing up children, looking after seniors, creating a good and healthy environment—because they’re not measurable with money.
Then it forgets them altogether.
Boyle says that while the modern world tries to measure everything, the hard fact is that “only when laboratory conditions are precise can you ever get anything like precision.” And he argues that “laboratory precision” is never possible on important issues involving people such as education, economics, health or voting.
Nonetheless, the number crunchers are not deterred. In Boyle’s words, they continue to “measure, measure, measure, knowing that what they measure is alive and will not keep still, and suspecting also maybe that—however much they count—they will not capture the essence of the question they are asking.” Things have to keep static if you’re gong to count them–and real life isn’t still, he notes.
As Boyle points out, numbers dominate the lives of citizens:
There are personal calculations to be made each day, about investments, journey times, bank machines and credit cards. There are professional figures at work in the form of targets, statistics, workforce percentages and profit forecasts. As consumers we are counted and aggregated according to every purchase we make. [Something that privacy advocates well know] Every time we are exposed to the media, there is a positive flood of statistics controlling and interpreting the world, developing each truth, simplifying each problem.
A book about “numbers” may seem an odd selection for a summer reading list. But, don’t let the title fool you. The book is as entertaining (and funny) as it is serious about the shortcomings and tyranny of numbers, public opinion polls, testing, marketing surveys and cost-benefit analyses.
When everything is numbers, then numbers become everything.