Introduction by Jay Tolson to a Special Issue of HedgeHog Review: “At a time when distraction and mendacity degrade public discourse, the heartbreaking toll of the current pandemic should at least remind us that quantification—data, numbers, statistics—are vitally important to policy, governance, and decision-making more broadly.
Confounding as they may be to some of us, numbers are arguably humankind’s most useful technology—our greatest discovery, or possibly our greatest invention. But the current global crisis should also remind us of something equally important: Good numbers, like good science, can only do so much to inform wise decisions about our personal and collective good. They cannot, in any true sense, make those decisions for us. Let the numbers speak for themselves is the rhetoric of the naïf or the con artist, and should long ago have been consigned to the dustbin of pernicious hokum. Yet how seldom in these Big Data days, in our Big Data daze, does it go unchallenged.
Or—to consider the flip side of the current bedazzlement—how often it goes challenged in exactly the wrong way, in a way that declares all facts, all data, all science to be nothing but relative, your facts versus our facts, “alternative facts.” That is the way of sophistry, where cynicism rules and might alone makes right.
Excessive or misplaced faith in the tools that should assist us in arriving at truth—a faith that can engender dangerously unreasoning or cynical reactions—is the theme of this issue. In six essays, we explore the ways the quantitative imperative has insinuated itself into various corners of our culture and society, asserting primacy if not absolute authority in matters where it should tread modestly. In the name of numbers that measure everything from GDP to personal well-being, technocrats and other masters of the postmodern economy have engineered an increasingly soulless, instrumentalizing culture whose denizens either submit to its dictates or flail darkly and destructively against them.
The origins of this nightmare version of modernity, a version that grows increasingly real, dates from at least the first stirrings of modern science in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but its distinctive institutional features emerged most clearly in the early part of the last century, when progressive thinkers and leaders in politics, business, and other walks of life sought to harness humankind’s physical and mental energies to the demands of an increasingly technocratic, consumerist society.
The subjugation of human vitality to the quantifying schedules and metrics of modernity is the story that historian Jackson Lears limns in the opening essay, “Quantifying Vitality: The Progressive Paradox.” As he explains, “The emergence of statistical selves was not simply a rationalization of everyday life, a search for order…. The reliance on statistical governance coincided with and complemented a pervasive revaluation of primal spontaneity and vitality, an effort to unleash hidden strength from an elusive inner self. The collectivization epitomized in the quantitative turn was historically compatible with radically individualist agendas for personal regeneration—what later generations would learn to call positive thinking.”…(More)”.