Thursday, March 21, 2013

Numbers versus narrative

Number the indisputable -- Ursual K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic -- misattributed to Joseph Stalin 
Our debates are marked by a paradox: numbers, while imperfect, give us the most effective, rational, objective and accurate picture of the state of our world. One picture of a slum or a staving child may shock us; numbers can describe a whole world of inequality and suffering. A single picture of a tank or missile may evoke awe, pride, disgust, or fear; the numbers can tell us what role a weapon can and cannot play in politics, the monetary or human cost of building it, the consequences of its use. Yet of all the information we can process, numbers probably have the least effect on our emotions, our motivations, and thus on our actions.  Social psychologist Stanley Milgram found that when he instructed subjects in an experiment to inflict what they believed to be electrical shocks, the voltages, expressed as numbers, had little effect. If subjects had no contact with the people they thought they were shocking, if they did not perceive suffering in other ways, then numbers on a dial did not affect their actions.

From Milgram's experiment to everyday observations on the net, it seems clear that the things we see, the narratives we identify with: these animate our passions. Numbers may offer the basis of clear and comprehensive understanding, but they do not reach us very effectively. I used to lament that disconnect, but I no longer do. Without it, I believe, we could not progress. Numbers tell us what exists, what we can measure. They locate us in the present. The narratives and images that fire our imaginations describe what we might do, where me might go. And as the product of our imaginations, we cannot measure them with the precision that numbers suggest. Numbers describe what we can do; pictures we make for ourselves and the stories we tell describe what we choose to do and what we ought to do. We need both, but our stories and our visions come first.

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