sociopolitical essays // keeping the spark of freedom & principle alive

The Malleability of Numbers

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

We in America have a love affair with numbers. Our media landscape has been drenched in images in recent decades but statistics remain as the hidden glitter in our ads and the secret weapon in our news broadcasts. Seemingly impermeable and sacred, they can shutdown arguments with impressive ease. No one can argue with the numbers!

Numbers are like rugged truth to the American sensibility. Throw “80% of. . .” into the conversation and a hush prevails. Say “4 in 5 of this” and your opponents must take pause. Declare that economists predict 'x' in the coming months and you will nod your head in agreement, accepting this rickety prediction as some kind of divine premonition. But so often the proffered numbers are not only polluted, but wildly incorrect.

Research processes can be corrupted by the motivations of their architects, ostensible findings can be flimsy due to insufficient replication, projections can fall flat on their face, and no one may even care! And yet the deification of numbers lumbers stubbornly on.

It is very difficult for the human eye to see them as anything but crystallized truth. Unveiling the ways in which they may not embody this ideal is disorienting and profoundly discouraging to us. Language has a wide reputation for manipulating and dodging the truth but as we often forget, numbers can be just as doctored.

There is curiously just something less Machiavellian about them at first glance. They are supposed to be bland arithmetical outcomes, not sly tricksters. They are supposed to be mirrors of reality, not artificial cherry-picked reproductions of it. Numbers are capable of both simplifying and complicating our world. They may  be benevolently employed to give us useful information and footholds for our decision-making, but they can add noise and misguide us just as much.

A number always has a story, you see. Behind its clean, crisp encapsulation hover unique efforts at data-harvesting. What to include and not include? How to make certain calculations? How to present the number—as a percentage, as a total, in a bar graph compared against previous years? All of these tiny decisions are intended to produce certain outcomes.

As queasy as it is to admit, all numbers serve an objective. Whether it is to produce an emotional reaction, to facilitate sales, to warrant funds, to produce alarm, or to halt behavior, figures are generally produced with not so much an ulterior motive at hand, but rather a purpose. Crucially, numbers themselves may be wrung through objective arithmetical processes, but they are always nestled within a larger narrative, thus injected with a certain degree of subjectivity. Numbers are not isolated, pure elements but instead, handmaids of stories.

Do you think that data is straightforward? Think again. Its manufacture is replete with different variables, thus it comes bound up with elastic properties. Definitions can be narrowed or broadened to change numerical outcomes. “Irrelevant” information can be filtered out. Formulas can be altered.

For example, some of our most foundational and important economic figures, such as our unemployment rate or aggregate GDP have endured turbulent fluctuations in definition. When one sees that the labor force can be slashed by thousands simply by arbitrarily contracting its definition, the resulting unemployment rate is magically given a makeover. Things suddenly look much better than they seem!

Countless industries and government on all tiers then rely on this sanctified figure and base all sorts of smaller decisions on it, not to mention larger predictions. History books record sweeping trends based on these figures, which if the numbers are indeed erroneous, end up telling a story that isn’t quite true. And no one is the wiser. Easy to see how numbers can warp instead of illuminate, right?

Numbers steer us in certain directions. They are clear-cut in their presentation and have a knack for forcing decision-making. Because of their unpretentious certitude, we assume the numbers know best. But so often they are produced by fallible minds inseparable from secret agendas.

As I’ve penned in an earlier piece, “The Supremacy of Narratives,”

"Data isn’t divine. Once touched by the human hand, compiled with other variables, rendered in the artistic slopes of a graph, it becomes an agent of a story.”

To add to this disillusionment, there is also the modern dilemma of the asymmetry of information quantity and quality afoot. Despite snagging the resources and intellectual know-how to produce unthinkable volumes of data, we have not become effortlessly more sophisticated as a result. This is largely because not all produced information is useful. Some of it is insignificant noise. Wading through large quantities of it is laborious and bewildering.

More data does not necessarily correlate to a greater degree of razor-sharp insight, or to accurate mechanical tweaking. More data carries the capacity to fine-tune in this manner, but it just as much carries the risk of confusing or misleading its handlers, or on the other hand, providing them with the raw material to render alternative stories plausible.

In our present technocratic moment, numbers are all the rage. We occupy an age where it is attractive to imagine that society can be ordered by technical expertise rather than by political wisdom. To this end, numbers enjoy a unique position of reverence. They have, in all their questionable cobbling-together, become our compass.

Our government leaders and financial planners increasingly substitute the technocratic gospel of numbers for the more traditional and humble determiners of prudence and logic. And so, the numbers end up paradoxically both sacred and malleable, treated as secret keys to unlock greater potential, but at the same time, exploitive objects to be cunningly molded. Curiously, they have become both the ends and the means.

Data has liberated us to gaze at the big-picture but it has also snared us in its multiplicity of pictures, do you see? In an age where it has become unfashionable to identify our limitations, allow the malleability of numbers to be a gentle challenge to our seeming sovereignty.

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Jamie Larson