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Number crunch

Numbers only mean as much as we let them mean. Diversions hed: Number crunch dek: numbers only mean as much as we let them mean.

Do we put too much stock in numbers? That is the thesis of a new book, “The Sum of Our Discontent,” by David Boyle. Boyle has written one of those great armchair books, arguing that our statistical universe is no more real or reliable than that on Cartoon Network.

On the flyleaf of his book he cites these bits of numerical geewhizery: Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens: 3.7 million Number of times that hackers infiltrate the Pentagon’s computer system annually: 160,000 Proportion of cars on Albanian roads believed to have been stolen from elsewhere in Europe: 80 percent.

Such statistics are like poems. When we hear them, we think we understand something in a much more palpable way than we could by any nonmathematical method. But in truth we have fooled ourselves, let our minds drift to a place that is entirely imaginary. A hiccup has a tighter grasp on reality than a statistic does.

It is an evolutionary achievement. Other ages transported themselves to transcendental rapture through self-abnegation, moldy bread, and mass hysteria. But for us, convinced that because we live in a scientific and rational age, it must be numbers.

One of my favorite books over the years has been “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds” by Charles McKay. Published in 1941, McKay’s book called attention to the remarkable power we all have to lie to ourselves, particularly in groups. His history looked at tulipmania, witch burnings, Crusade fever, and the elastic prophecies of Nostradamus.

Numbers were less interesting in the past. So-called primitive peoples had systems for measuring one, two, three, and “more than three”–anything higher than three was too abstract to give it a name. If we wished to spare a king from assassination, we seated him beside a poet at supper.

When Dickens wanted to portray a man of no spiritual account, he chose an accountant, a scrivener, a wretch on a stool named Scrooge. Today, when we have a coronation, it is presided over by the men from Pricewaterhousecoopers. In our society, it is the poets who are scoffed at, and the number crunchers are king.

It is as if we need the gloss of reason to get carried away, and numbers seem reasonable to us. Boyle cites a Chinese report of a 1000-percent rise in mentally handicapped school children. Never mind that each child so designated is excused from school, and the school is thus spared the cost of educating them. But the power of the number blinded people to the greater truth–that the society was willing to write off all those perfectly normal children to save a few renminbi.

Once a thought is expressed numerically, however, it doesn’t matter how wrong or disprovable it is–whether it is Malthus or Paul Erlich being wrong about population, or the $1.2 trillion that George W. Bush campaigned to both keep in and remove from the Social Security fund, simultaneously. The fact that it is a number confers a degree of sanctity upon it, and being numbskulls, or numberskulls, we buy into it.

The awful irony is that our credulity with numbers belies our ineptitude with them. At a time when we need engineers and scientists as never before, fewer kids are taking the math courses to support those careers.

Seems to me we have a choice: Study math so that we can criticize numbers when they lie, or forswear it entirely–neither study numbers nor believe in them.

But what we are getting is the worst possible combination of ignorance and awe.

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