Numbers, Damned Lies & Statistics


Gabriel Tarde, 1843-1904.
A genius, but nobody knew.

You can tell a lot about a person by what they think about numbers. Most people in my experience use them in obvious everyday ways, like in counting change at the shops, and don't give them much thought. If stretched outside those everyday uses, they will often go into a mild or even moderate panic, and some exhibit a sort of visceral loathing born from many years of incomprehension in maths lessons.

It's a bigger issue than just numbers though, it's about the difference between what more academic folk would call quantitative and qualitative ways of understanding the world. Nearly always those terms are thought to be opposites - you either study something quantitatively, which means you try to count or measure or calculate it in some way, or you do it qualitatively, which means pretty much everything else. Which is a bit of a clue really, qualitative is one of those terms people invent to capture what's left over after they've already decided something else is much more important. As Germaine Greer said in The Whole Woman, if the person is of no clear gender, let's make it a girl. (The standard practice in cases where medical science isn't sure.)

In the 19th century, criminologist, judge and sociologist (before the term really meant anything much) Gabriel Tarde thought something was terribly wrong with all of this. He was one of those thinkers who makes a profound, breathtaking change to the way we understand things, rather than some minor variation on a common theme. And he was therefore pretty much ignored, and is still today, but this is changing. At the same time he realised and showed that what we've for a long time called the 'micro' and 'macro' when describing things i.e. the scale of things, was also completely flawed.

More on what he discovered next time.


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