Numbers Aren't Everything

Because everything isn't reducible to numbers.

In his article, “Quantifying Vitality,” Jackson Lears digs up the roots of today’s quantification mania (Hedgehog Review, Summer 2020).

He explains that the fervor for bringing everything under the bean-counting tendencies of science and economics began with early 20th-century Progressives. They were seeking ways of bringing the power of government to bear on increasing areas of American life. Being able to reduce everything of value to some form of quantification became an important item on their agenda.

The effect, over time, has been to make us think that all that matters must be reducible to some kind of numbering. The health of the nation’s economy (GDP), the functioning of the brain, social relations, and every form of public policy. If we can put numbers on such things, we can take steps to adjust the numbers, assuming that in so doing we will change – and hopefully improve – the issue or item which is the subject of our attention.

Numbers and the science that manipulates them thus takes the place of God and His Word in the minds of many. This is the unspoken theme of all public education, the aim of all training and nearly every vocation, and even the means whereby churches determine their health or needs. If we can count it, we can change it, boast in it, or find someone to blame for it. The insistence on numbers as the defining and guiding light of all truth is a form of determinism that makes of the scientist the high priest, the government that arm of policy and enforcement, and the individual the object of someone else’s faulty worldview.


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