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by David N. Livingstone


Why We Trust Numbers More Than People

Trust in Numbers: the Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life
By Theodore M. Porter
Princeton University Press
310 pp.; $24.95, hardcover;
$16.95, paper

This morning's edition of the London Times reported on a recent speech made by the British chancellor of the exchequer, Kenneth Clarke. "Our recovery is now in its fourth year," he announced. "Output is nearly already 7 per cent higher than it was before the recession. Unemployment is down by over three quarters of a million. . . . Exports are up by 15 per cent in the last two years. Inflation has been below 4 per cent for three and a half years. That's the longest period of inflation at that level for almost half a century."1

Such statistical talk is now the lingua franca of the public square. Numbers exercise power in society, for they enjoy immense social kudos. Governments parade their accomplishments in terms of capital investment and economic growth; colleges and universities produce performance tables; psychologists measure human intelligence on a distribution curve; economists regale us with the retail price index and inflation levels; merchant bankers and international financiers monitor the balance of payments and exchange rates; environmental planners speak the language of cost-benefit analysis. And all are contested with opposing rates and ratios!

The ritual incantation of statistical claim and counterclaim suggests that number today is as magical as numerology was in medieval astrology. Nothing, it seems, can escape the rule of the statistical imperative. In the early days of the development of statistical analysis, for example, Sir Francis Galton--cousin of Darwin, eugenicist, African explorer, and pioneer of regression analysis--entertained the readers of Nature with his sure-shot optimal method of cutting a cake,2 conducted his own statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer,3 and also found it worth his while to prepare a map of the geographical distribution of female beauty in Britain.4 ...

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