Never before have we attempted to measure as much as we do today. Why are we so obsessed with numbers? What can they really tell us?
Too often we try to quantify what can’t actually be measured. We count people, but not individuals. We count exam results rather than intelligence, benefit claimants instead of poverty. The government has set itself 10,000 new targets. Politicians pack their speeches with skewed statistics: crime rates are either rising or falling depending on who is doing the counting.
We are in a world in which everything designed only to be measured. If it can’t be measured it can be ignored.
But the big problem is what numbers don’t tell you. They won’t interpret. They won’t inspire, and they won’t tell you precisely what causes what.
In this passionately argued and thought-provoking book, David Boyle examines our obsession with numbers. He reminds us of the danger of taking numbers so seriously at the expense of what is non-measurable, non-calculable: intuition, creativity, imagination, happiness…
Counting is a vital human skill. Yardsticks are a vital tool. As long as we remember how limiting they are if we cling to them too closely.
Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens = 3.7 million
Average time spent by British people in traffic jams every year = 11 days
Number of Americans shot by children under six between 1983 and 1993 = 138, 490
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The 1988 film Drowning by Numbers contains a scene where a boy is asked why he is counting the hairs on his dog. He answers "To see how many there are", incredulous at the stupidity of the question.
David Boyle may not cite Peter Greenaway's film, but he would surely concur with its title. The premise of his irreverent, witty and passionate treatise is that we've lost sight of the non-quantitative character of life, suffocated by the number-crunchers and their churned-out reams of statistics. At a swift canter, he summarises the major historical human figures in the counting game--Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Edwin Chadwick, Charles Booth, John Maynard Keynes, David Pearce--mostly in terms of their eccentric personalities, which he makes as ironical and twinkly as their pursuits were methodical. Bentham yearned to calculate human happiness yet ended up, stuffed, in a university lobby, while Booth, who collected heroic amounts of information about the London poor, never quite worked out what to do with it. Beyond the cosy gossiping, Boyle has the more serious intention of countering the solemn, pseudo-scientific jargon that he believes is inducing a "pervasive blindness" in our perception of the world, where a commercial value is put on everything, physical or abstract. This undignified shoehorning is causality gone mad, he contends. At the time of Clinton's impeachment, figures were produced to show that 84 percent of those in favour of his trial were consumers of Campbell's Soup, while Burger King customers were largely pro-Clinton.
What does this prove? Whatever you want, as long as you're not taking it seriously. What does need to be taken seriously, Boyle contends, is the growing lack of imagination and, by extension, wisdom, to accept and interpret or reject this sludge of figures. Intended as no more than a polemic, his book exceeds its brief. It entertains as it rails, and is packed with wonderful literary quotations and anecdotes, and regular bizarre measurements (for example, "Gry": a very small archaic English measurement the size of a speck of dirt under a fingernail). Subjective, digressive, unquantifiable and priceless. The one thing to count on is that economists will hate it. --David VincentReview:
‘A great antidote to cynicism, and a sharply witty reminder of what is important in life.’ Independent
‘Wonderfully subversive.’ Guardian.
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