The tyranny of numbers: Why counting can’t make us happy

We are drowning in numbers, overwhelmed by statistics, targets and performance league tables. In government, education, health, science and finance, the bean-counters reign supreme. As this timely book says, we are in danger of forgetting just how limited numbers are and what they can and cannot do. In our fascination with counting, we lose sight of things that are not measurable. Spontaneity, imagination and joy are not susceptible to the Gradgrind mentality.

In an entertaining potted history of number-crunching – key players being Jeremy Bentham, Edwin Chadwick and John Maynard Keynes – David Boyle argues that the Victorians started the rot, with their mania for purposeless classification. The philanthropist Charles Booth was typical. After 17 years collecting statistics on the London poor and 17 volumes of information, he admitted that he had merely measured the effects of poverty and had no idea of the causes.

I was less impressed by Boyle’s take on our modern obsession with counting. Although he pinpoints the way slide-rule, stopwatch and ‘time-and-motion’ studies have hobbled creativity, he is excessively in thrall to the vacuous nostrums of management gurus such as Charles Handy. I also question his faith in big businesses’ willingness to incorporate an ‘ethical dimension’ into their balance sheets. That aside, though, this is a valuable counterblast against oppression by data. Information is not knowledge. As Boyle points out: ‘numbers won’t interpret. They won’t inspire and they won’t tell us what causes what.’ As the proverb goes, you don’t make sheep any fatter by weighing them!

New Internationalist issue 333 magazine cover This article is from the April 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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