Why should we care about numbers? Economic policy is led by gross domestic product (GDP), climate science calls for limiting global warming to 1.5°C, epidemiology uses the basic reproduction number R0 to indicate an infection’s expected impact (e.g. in a pandemic). The interdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has developed an analytics of numbers to research what numbers do, for instance to society, and how numbers are done.
Numbers are ubiquitous. It is expected that residents in modern societies can read numbers, count, as well as calculate. Some hate, others love them. Numbers are involved in everyday practices like shopping, measuring length, counting unread emails. Numbers, too, figure in management, governance, science, engineering, medicine and many other private and public sector fields that employ technoscience.
How come numbers are so widespread? Are all these numbers similar enough, in kind, for us to treat them similarly? Sociology, Anthropology, History, Human Geography as well as Science and Technology Studies have shown that numbers are employed and produced in very different ways – and that neither mathematics nor data science occupy an epistemologically privileged position for understanding numbers.
What do numbers do? This question helps the social scientist who analyses a number to focus on the consequences of numbers in social, cultural and economic relations. The presumption is, of course, that people who use numbers do so for a purpose and that this purpose is actually achieved. However, the latter may not be the case. We learn that numbers may be ignored, that the form or aesthetic of being a number may matter more than what a number tells us; sometimes it matters more that a number exists, than it is understood. Of course, very often numbers are also used to make distant phenomena legible (e.g. 57,000 square miles of oil in the pacific, consequence of BP Deepwater Horizon spill) and power action at a distance (send ships to Gulf of Mexico). Both the form and aesthetic of numbers, as well as their effect, have generated trust in many societies over time. Trusting the power of numbers does not necessarily mean that numbers are embraced. Applying numeric methods and forms of quantification, such as counting and statistics, can also generate social as well as expert resistance (e.g. against constructing the “quality of life” as the numeric indicator QALY). Subjecting entities to quantification effects new sets of numbers, that can be drawn up in the next steps of number (or data) processing – nth order calculations. Who can account for what happens in such chains of number operations? In sum, numbers generate a range of exciting effects, awaiting the social scientist.
How are numbers brought about by people and machines? This is a question that can be answered if we turn to the inner workings of number operations, towards, for example, data practices or algorithms. Numbers are often created and handled by humans; and humans are socially-historically positioned actors. Even if numbers are handled by software, the software gets configured by humans, including their social biases and values. So, what do humans invest in the production of numbers? Here we meet a powerful prescriptive field, mathematics. This field attempts to define how numbers ought to be created and handled, following specific forms and modes of logic. As social scientists we need to attend to how these logics operate – in practice. Addressing the actual conduct of mathematics reveals practices of writing and communication that are socially and historically specific. Mathematical communication is achieved by embodied humans who necessarily draw on their situated contextual knowledges. Numbers, one could say, explode internally; they are full of relevant social, cultural and political dimensions.
Author: Ingmar Lippert
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