Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life by Theodore M. PorterThis investigation of the overwhelming appeal of quantification in the modern world discusses the development of cultural meanings of objectivity over two centuries. How are we to account for the current prestige and power of quantitative methods? The usual answer is that quantification is seen as desirable in social and economic investigation as a result of its successes in the study of nature. Theodore Porter is not content with this. Why should the kind of success achieved in the study of stars, molecules, or cells be an attractive model for research on human societies? he asks. And, indeed, how should we understand the pervasiveness of quantification in the sciences of nature? In his view, we should look in the reverse direction: comprehending the attractions of quantification in business, government, and social research will teach us something new about its role in psychology, physics, and medicine. Drawing on a wide range of examples from the laboratory and from the worlds of accounting, insurance, cost-benefit analysis, and civil engineering, Porter shows that it is exactly wrong to interpret the drive for quantitative rigor as inherent somehow in the activity of science except where political and social pressures force compromise. Instead, quantification grows from attempts to develop a strategy of impersonality in response to pressures from outside. Objectivity derives its impetus from cultural contexts, quantification becoming most important where elites are weak, where private negotiation is suspect, and where trust is in short supply.
In Numbers We Trust
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Both authors presume that the question of its adequacy as a measure is hard to separate from its role as a political and economic force. Neither, however, enters deeply into the characteristics of numbers, rankings, or indicators that give them their power, or the social and political systems that can make them irresistible. The books focus less on the history of economics or of economic statistics as scientific fields than on the relations between economic measurement and the historical development of economies. Each author puts the number itself on center stage only during its formative period, that of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Thereafter, it lurks and looms, pulling invisible strings, in Philipsen's book, and adjusts imperfectly to changing economic conditions in Coyle's.
Our scientific culture, and much of our public life, is based on trust in numbers. They are commonly accepted as the means to achieving objectivity in analysis, certainty in conclusions, and truth. Numbers tell us about the health of our society as in the rates of occurrence of unwanted behavior , and they provide a demarcation between what is accepted as safe and what is believed to be dangerous. In Trust in Numbers , Theodore Porter, an associate professor of history at UCLA and the author of The Rise of Statistical Thinking, Princeton, , unpacks this assumption and uses history to show how such a trust may sometimes be based less on the solidity of the numbers themselves than on the needs of expert and client communities. The pursuit of objectivity through numbers defines modern public policy rather like the pursuit of happiness defines modern private life; and neither pursuit is guaranteed to lead to simple success. In looking critically at the rigor of quantitative analysis, the book treads on ground that has recently become very delicate.
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This investigation of the overwhelming appeal of quantification in the modern world discusses the development of cultural meanings of objectivity over two centuries. How are we to account for the current prestige and power of quantitative methods?
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